Thursday, December 31, 2015

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

                          May The Force Be With You Once Again 

                                                            Review by Ken Burke
 If you read my last posting you know that I should be in warm, sunny Cuba by now instead of at home in winter-gripped-Hayward, CA pounding out my last review of 2015.  However, “The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men Gang aft agley [Oft go awry](Robert Burns, from “To A Mouse, On Turning Her Up In Her Nest With The Plough,” 1785; whole thing here if you like), so while the hearts, minds, and most of the bodies of myself and my wonderful wife, Nina, were ready to board our first link to the Caribbean via Miami last Sunday one component of Nina’s body—her right hip and the adjoining leg—decided it would rather stay in Hayward and visit an orthopedic doctor so that’s what we did, as the pain and mobility problems that she’s been experiencing lately just weren’t going away, even with the help of a cortisone shot; thus, I’m back to work in my well-paid-career (?) with Two Guys in the Dark.  However, thanks to the help of a wheelchair we did get to travel around in the Mission District in San Francisco recently where we had a marvelous meal of Cuban food (no rum, alas!) at El Nuevo Frutilandia (as usual, no compensation to me for this plug, just the desire to encourage business where it’s well-deserved) so at least we got a “taste” of the trip that we’ll actually take someday.  Meanwhile, I guess I should give a little business as well to an obscure movie that you’ve probably never heard of that takes place long ago in a galaxy far, far away …
Take care, curious readers, for plot spoilers gallop rampantly throughout the Two Guys’ insightful reviews.  Therefore, be warned, beware, and read on when you’re ready to be transported to … wherever we end up.  Please protect your eyes from the dazzling brilliance.
            Star Wars: The Force Awakens (J.J. Abrams)
30 years after the events of Return of the Jedi the New Republic is unstable as evil beings from the Dark Side of the Force manifest themselves as the First Order, opposed by the Resistance led by Gen. Leia Organa while her Jedi brother, Luke Skywalker, has disappeared for years, allowing new heroes to arise in an attempt to find him while fighting these fierce new villains.
What Happens: As we enter the Stars Wars galaxy again we find ourselves thrown into the turbulent events of Episode IV: A New Hope Episode VII: The Force Awakens (forgive me for my mistake there, but you’ll have to admit that there are numerous [intentional] similarities between the 2 plot lines of these movies including: a reluctant hero from a desert planet comes forth to channel the power of The Force to thwart a deadly evil; critical decisions involving Han Solo are made in a rowdy cantina; a devastating weapon is used to destroy entire planets of the Republic’s federation, forcing death-defying-heroes to shut down some of the assault-force-technology so that it can be forced to explode; and, most, importantly, a crucial character dies at the hand [well, light saber, actually] of a fierce villain [there are many more references to the previous Star Wars movies in Episode VII—although that’s not part of its official title, just a well-known-number in the series along with that reminder being used in the opening on-screen-graphics-crawl]; if you’d like a great accounting of other connections to the earlier episodes, go here for a 9 min. 11 sec. video [although you may have to watch it more than once to catch everything because the revelations are delivered at close-to-hyperdrive-speed], but if you haven’t seen … The Force Awakens yet you’d better think twice about my Spoiler Alert before you read any further because you're in for some surprises), where roughly 30 years after the fall of the Empire in … Episode VI: Return of the Jedi (Richard Marquand, 1983) the New Republic finds itself in trouble once again because remnants of the Empire, calling themselves the First Order, aided by the Dark Side of The Force have once again amassed an army of stormtroopers (this time they’re not clones, they’re soldiers captured as children then raised with brainwashing to hate the Republic and the legacy of the Jedi) intent on regaining control of the galaxy after they locate, then exterminate, the long-missing-Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) so that no further Jedi will interfere with their plans (Luke’s been in self-imposed-isolation after a tragic Dark turn by an apprentice, resulting in the deaths of a new Jedi legion).

 The face—or mask, much of the time—of evil now belongs to Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), who yearns to finish the galaxy-subversion-task so ably kept in place years ago by Darth Vader (he even has Vader’s old mask, warped by the funeral pyre that consumed his body after his death in Episode VI; Kylo [Ren seems to be a group name, just like the Sith in Vader’s time, as Kylo is the leader of the Knights of Ren] also wears a mask much of the time but seemingly in honor of Vader, not because he needs it to breathe), which we find out as the movie slowly reveals its various plot surprises is because he’s Vader’s grandson, from the union of Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Princess/Senator/now General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher)—we quickly find out when father and son confront each other on a metal bridge over a deep chasm toward the end of … Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (Irvin Kershner, 1980) Episode VII that there’s to be no better rapprochement between Han and Kylo (real name apparently was Ben Solo) than there was between Luke and Vader (former name Anakin Skywalker, the focal character of Episodes I-III [George Lucas: 1999, 2002, 2005], in case you followed popular opinion and avoided those entries, although many didn’t as they each made a pile of moolah) in their non-recruitment-to-the-Dark Side-encounter at the end of Episode V (Although Luke just lost a hand in that battle whereas Han is lost completely as Kylo cuts through him with a light saber in the current story; does this shocker help you believe my Spoiler Alerts?  OK, y’all remember that for future warnings, ya hear?.  Now you know why Ford was paid so much more than any of his co-stars, even Hamill and Fisher [he reportedly made $10-20 million while their salaries were in the “low-seven-figure range”; Driver and Oscar Isaac were supposedly paid in the “mid-to high-six figures,” while emerging-stars John Boyega and Daisy Ridley are in “the low-six-figure range,” with all of these sure to shoot up in the coming sequels] for this appearance because, sadly, we likely won’t be seeing rogue-master-Solo again in this series—damn it!—except maybe in flashbacks or in ghostly-fashion as we witnessed the deceased Obi-Wan Kenobi's [Alec Guinness] apparitional "return" in Episodes V and VI.)

 Yet—as is always the case with these Dark Side villains—there is another, even-more-totally-evil-character (Kylo’s still struggling to turn away any attraction from the bright side of The Force; thus, killing his father helps him in that endeavor, just as Vader himself still retained a strain of decency that allowed him to save son Luke at the end of Episode VI, killing the full-blown-evil-Emperor even at the cost of his own life, a decision that Kylo seems to have forgotten about) in the person of Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis—whom we see again mostly as a computer-animated-overlay as was the case with him as Gollum in the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings adaptations [Peter Jackson; 2012, 2001-2003] and Caesar in the recent Planet of the Apes movies [Rupert Wyatt, 2011; Matt Reeves, 2014]), a seemingly-gigantic-Dark Side-crusader (Or is that just his holographic image size?), intent on destroying Luke then conquering the galaxy once again, just like the despicable Senator Palpatine/Darth Sidious/Emperor (Ian McDiarmid) of the first 6 episodes of the Star Wars saga.  (Unfortunately, I don’t have an image of Snoke so here’s another one, just above, of Kylo Ren in deadly action with his unique light saber.)

 Now, in a more chronological recap of … The Force Awakens’ plot, we have the Resistance, led by General Organa (looking distressed under the weight of her mission to once again destroy the manifestations of The Force’s Dark Side, but also personally stressed as Fisher was required to lose a good bit of weight in order to look more like her old self instead of a distant female relative of Jabba the Hutt, as she’d enlarged her off-screen-presence a bit in the intervening years since Return of the Jedi)—why they’re talked about as a separate entity from the New Republic, just supported by this political organization rather than being their standing army I don’t know yet—trying to find Luke, so she sends her best pilot, Poe Dameron (Isaac), to the desert planet of Tatoonie Jakku to retrieve a map that supposedly leads to Luke’s location; Poe gets it from elderly Lor San Tekka (Max von Sydow), but the First Order’s already on his tail so Poe hides the info in robot R2-D2 BB-8 (voiced by Brian Herring and Dave Chapman, aural consultation by Bill Hader and Ben Schwartz), then tries to escape but is captured and tortured by Darth Vader Kylo Ren.  However, stormtrooper FN-2187 (Boyega)—later renamed Finn by Poe—somehow has resisted his conditioning, wants no part of the First Order’s intentions, so he helps Poe escape in a stolen TIE fighter, although it’s mostly to get Finn's own hide off of their Star Destroyer; they crash-land back on Jakku, where Poe seemingly dies, leaving Finn to continue running from pursuing First Order troops as he encounters BB-8 who’s already been taken in by local scavenger Rey (Ridley)—she frequently sells chunks of old Empire ships that litter her planet to a junk dealer, Watto (Andy Secombe, from … Episode I: The Phantom Menace [Lucas, 1999]), Unkar Plutt (Simon Pegg).  Rey, Finn, and BB-8 manage to leave Jakku in what Rey considers a hunk of discarded junk but what we recognize as the fabled Millennium Falcon (Han and Rey briefly explain later how this happened but I couldn’t repeat it for you).  Well, sure enough, soon the Falcon’s overtaken by a huge freighter but instead of being manned by First Order troops we find that it’s piloted by Han and his long-time-buddy-Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew, from the earlier episodes, when he could move around properly despite a leg injury, Joonas Suotamo when a more mobile actor was needed in some scenes).

 All 5 of them escape in the Falcon after some various gang members show up demanding huge compensation from Solo.  We don’t get many details but, apparently, after things went bad with son Ben/Kylo he and Leia went their separate ways, him back to smuggling; it’s not clear if they were married—we assume so because this is a PG-13 series, after all—unlike in many of the novels that continued the Star Wars series after Return of the Jedi where Leia and Han have 3 kids, all on the right side of The Force, he continues to have great respect in the Republic, while she attains the Supreme Chancellor role rather than following her twin brother into the training needed for a Jedi knight (at least in the novels that I’ve read of this huge print extension of the foundational story).

 As for our heroes in this movie—with Rey suddenly showing great skills as a pilot—they head for a cantina at Mos Eisley on Tatooine on the forest planet, Takodana, run by 1,000-year-old-Maz Kanata (a Yoda-sized-gal voiced by Lupita Nyong’o) to formulate their next actions, but Rey wanders into an underground room where she finds a light saber that gives her disturbing visions; Maz explains it once belonged to Luke and his father before him (which means it must be the one that fell into the abyss of Cloud City in The Empire Strikes Back [Irvin Kershner, 1980] when Vader cut off Luke’s hand but we get no explanations here about how the weapon ended up in this secret vault); shaken, Rey runs off into the nearby forest while Finn keeps the light saber, but he’ll need more than that soon because Supreme Leader Snoke (clearly modeled on Adolph Hitler’s Nazi self-delusions of ultimate power) orders the use of the monstrous Starkiller device, a planet-sized-weapon using the power of its nearby sun, to unleash enough energy to destroy 5 planets at once, the system that contains the Republic's capital (Coruscant, I presume, but I don’t recall hearing that name mentioned); Kylo and his crew arrive but are pushed back by Resistance fighters led by Poe (not dead, of course; he ejected from the crash-landed-stolen-TIE fighter that Finn also survived on Jakku), although Rey is captured.  However, when interrogated by Kylo she discovers that she also can also command The Force, allowing her to block his mind-reading-attempts (just as Leia did, unknowing of her powers, against Vader in ... Episode IV: A New Hope [Lucas, 1977]), eventually escaping to hide in the Death Star Starkiller Base until she meets up again with Han, Chewbacca, and Finn who’ve come to destroy a protective shield so that Rebel Resistance fighters can attack the Starkiller weapon, causing it to explode the entire planet that it occupies before it can terminate the Rebel base Resistance’s home world.

 As noted above, a confrontation between Han and Kylo results in the elder Solo’s death (falling off the catwalk where he tried to appeal to his son’s conflicted nature [similar to how the Emperor was thrown into the reactor core of the 2nd Death Star in Episode VI], so that his body couldn’t even be recovered for a proper burial); Chewbacca’s rage gets a wounding shot into Kylo just before his further blasts explode parts of the massive weapon so that the Resistance pilots can destroy the rest of it (much like what happens in Episodes IV and VI), then Finn and Rey confront Kylo for a light saber duel which results in Finn also being wounded but Rey on course to kill Kylo just as the planet splits beneath them saving him (ultimately he’ll escape with Snoke and fierce human First Order General Hux [Domhnail Gleeson] to continue these battles in the next 2 sequels, just as happened in Episodes IV-VI concerning the Skywalker family), with our remaining heroes returning to the Resistance base to not only mourn Solo (even as Rey and Finn have become committed warriors instead of the former originally wanting to return to Jakku in hopes that her family who abandoned her there will someday return, just as Finn earlier wanted to disappear into the nether galactic regions of the Outer Rim to leave all of this chaos behind) but also finally connect BB-8’s partial map with the remaining pieces from R2-D2’s (Kenny Baker as some sort of a consultant) internal archives (we also get a brief appearance by C-3PO [Anthony Daniels]—with an as-yet-unexplained red left arm—but we’ll have to assume he matters more in future episodes) which allows Rey to finally locate Luke so that she can offer him the return of his light saber, which he's thoughtfully considering as we fade out until Episode VIII appears far, far away in May 2017.

So What? Every time I open my media-related-email-account I find new stories on box-office-records being broken by … The Force Awakens, so whatever I include here will likely be erased by the time that you read it (maybe even before I get this review posted). Audience response worldwide has been absolutely phenomenal so far, with ticket sales of $1.16 billion (in just 13 days; although Box Office Mojo now shows it at $1.23 billion, with the big New Years Day weekend on the horizon), making it the 5th-biggest-domestic (U.S. and Canada)-grosser, 9th-biggest-worldwide, after taking in 248 million domestic dollars, $529 million global total on its opening weekend (topping the previous records in those categories set in summer 2015 by Jurassic World [Colin Trevorrow; review in our June 17, 2015 posting]), when it played on 30,000 international screens, coming in #1 in every market in which it opened (except South Korea and Vietnam), with massive new revenue anticipated when … The Force Awakens in China, starting January 9, 2016, so its estimated $200 million production costs have been well covered already, even if you push that to about $600 million to account for worldwide distribution and advertising expenses—I should also note that this massive surge of sales at year’s end pushed overall domestic movie-ticket-sales for all U.S. studios over the $11 billion mark for the first time.  The Walt Disney Studio is deliriously-happy with these results, already justifying their $4.06 billion purchase of Lucasfilm Ltd. in 2012, along with all of the Star Wars rights, in that … The Force Awakens has helped raise their 2015 movie income to over $5 billion worldwide (1st time for them) on the strength of this new Star Wars episode along with big successes from Avengers: Age of Ultron (Joss Whedon; review in our May 7, 2015 posting—don’t forget that Disney also bought Marvel Entertainment in 2009), Cinderella (Kenneth Branagh; review in our March 19, 2015 posting), Ant-Man (Peyton Reed; review in our September 3, 2015 posting), with The Good Dinosaur (Peter Sohn; review in our December 10, 2015 posting) bringing in about $190 million of that but surprisingly not making back its $200 million budget (same production costs as … The Force Awakens, oddly enough, although Abrams probably kept his expenses down by using a lot of old-school-photographic-effects [in an effort to recapture the visual look of the earliest-made Star Wars movies, Episodes IV-VI] rather than the extensive level of Computer Generated Imagery that so overwhelmed Lucas’ later-released-Episodes I-III).

 The leading studio, though, for 2015 was Universal with $6.8 billion globally (sorry, I've lost my reference for this figure when I got overwhelmed with too much research, but I know it's accurate; the above link verifies the domestic income noted just below) due mainly to Jurassic World and Furious 7 (James Wan; review in our April 15, 2015 posting); they also led domestically with $2.4 billion in movie income vs. Disney’s $2.1 billion (curiously, though, even with all that movie-related-income Disney's stock price has dropped a bit over concerns about upcoming losses connected to their TV sports network ESPN as consumers leave cable in favor of streaming).  Additional box-office-records for … The Force Awakens include biggest-domestic-Christmas Day-ticket-sales ($49.3 million), fastest to $100 million on global IMAX screens (12 days, topping Jurassic World’s 18) and a good number of others (still evolving as we move into 2016) too numerous to list (please note that, since this last linked article came out, final 1st –weekend-figures give the largest global opening ever to the new Star Wars episode—as noted in the paragraph above—rather than the earlier-reported Jurassic World) except that it hit $1 billion worldwide in the fastest time ever, 12 days, once again beating Jurassic World's 13 days to reach that mark.

 All of this financial impact and audience enthusiasm for Star Wars: The Force Awakens (with more to come, as the current momentum could easily push it into the worldwide top ranks, with the #1 and #2 spots currently held by James Cameron’s Avatar [2009; $2.79 billion—with 3 sequels of its own in production, anticipated-release-dates beginning in late 2017, well after Star Wars: Episode VIII planned for May of that year, followed by Star Wars: Episode IX in May, 2019] and Titanic [1997; $2.17 billion]) has been matched by critical embrace (Rotten Tomatoes with 94% positive reviews, 81% at Metacritic [more details in the links far below]), with several critics in my own San Francisco area putting it on their Top 10 lists for 2015 (although you can find negative responses, such as a scathing one from Michael Hiltzik of the Los Angeles Times), but this popularity has now led to some concerns over concessions being made to consider … The Force Awakens for year-end-honors because it was screened for critics just a few days before it opened in mid-December, compromising normal deadlines for awards considerations (by the time it was released the San Francisco Film Critics Circle had already chosen Spotlight [Tom McCarthy; review in our November 19, 2015 posting and still my choice for best of 2015 so far but with some heavy contenders I still need to see]).  The Broadcast Film Critics Association created quite a stir when its leaders voted to allow this new Star Wars story to be added to their existing 10 contenders for Best Film, with complaints that its inclusion was intended simply as a ratings ploy when this group presents its awards in early 2016 via TV broadcast as they try to establish more thunder for themselves as better predictors of Oscar winners than the better-known Hollywood Foreign Press Association’s Golden Globes, also due for early 2016 broadcast (not a bad argument: BFCA has predicted 7 of the past 11 Best Picture Oscar winners vs. 3 for the Globes, 15 of the last 20 Best Director winners vs. 10 for the Globes, and over the last 10 years a 70% match of Oscar’s acting nominations vs. 40% for the Globes—at the end of this linked article from industry-Bible Variety [although you’d get arguments about that from the fine folks at the Hollywood Reporter] you’ll find that publication’s early predictions for the Oscar nominees in 21 of the standard 24 categories).

 How … The Force Awakens shapes up for Oscar consideration regarding nominations/awards will just have to wait to be seen because even in the technical areas where it shines brightly (just as the original release, then just called Star Wars now subtitled as A New Hope, won 6 Oscars in such categories, plus a Special Achievement for Sound Effects Editing and a Scientific and Engineering Award) there’s already fierce competition from Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller; review in our May 20, 2015 posting), another critical favorite that’s gaining a lot of momentum even for Best Director (not from me; but if you want to keep up with critics’ and nominations scorecards see the running totals in a couple of the Related Links area that round out this posting farther below)

Bottom Line Final Comments: I must acknowledge that with so much already having been written, even in such a short time since its debut, about Star Wars: The Force Awakens (a title which you could easily believe is really referring to the sound of Disney’s cash register ringing up massive sales of tickets and various merchandise, with even the original Disneyland theme park undergoing a major renovation to remove certain low-impact areas [Big Thunder Ranch primarily] in order to build a new Star Wars Land, due for completion maybe by late 2016) there’s not a lot left for me to say (just as the pre-release-reviews had to be very quiet and coy about how much the beloved-middle-trilogy-characters would play into this new story, taking care especially not to blow the secrets of Han’s estrangement from Leia, Han’s death, and the almost-nonexistence of Luke), yet I can steer you to articles that discuss 21 reasons why this new movie deserves your respect, along with additional reasons why Abrams is successful in recapturing the magic of the first-released-trilogy including not being bound further to ideas that George Lucas suggested for the current cluster (although, with all of the disparagement heaped upon the later-released-prequels I still think that the naysayers about the Anakin-dominated-stories need to realize that the involved story arc was always destined for a tragic outcome while being populated with characters [such as Obi-Wan Kenobi and even the lovable droids] who, unlike Yoda, the true heart of the early episodes, were still evolving into the personalities that were more solid by the time the focus turned to Luke).  Further, if somehow you’re not that clear—either from foggy memory or (gasp!) lack of exposure—about all 6 of the previous episodes and need some further context to help in your full appreciation of … The Force Awakens then you might be interested in this extremely-well-done-7-minute-summary of the story up to this point or at least this silly, roughly 1-minute-wrap-up of Episodes IV-VI from Steven Colbert (thanks to long-time-colleague/contributor Richard Parker for suggesting this one).  These are just resources that have emerged for me in the last few days as I reset my sights from Cuba to Jakku and points beyond; you’ll find acres more of Star Wars material with just a few Internet searches so let me know if you encounter some other references that cry out to be added to the ones I’ve already compiled.

 What viewers of … The Force Awakens are likely crying out about (at least if you’re like me with just the foundational knowledge of the 6 previous movies plus maybe some of the many post-Empire novels that have come out in the last few decades rather than reading all of those, keeping up with The Clone Wars animated TV series [2003-2005, 2008-2014, plus related video games], etc. to know every last tidbit of Star Wars trivia, some of which I’m sure is connected to what we haven’t yet learned about those “lost” years between movie Episodes VI and VII), though, is to know: (1) what happened with Luke and his renegade apprentice (Was it Ben Solo before he converted to his assassin’s role with the Knights of Ren? What’s become of General Leia Organa after she and Han split up because of their son’s treachery and how long has the First Order been in business?), (2) how Supreme Leader Snoke got to be so powerful with the Dark Side (and is he really that gigantic?), (3) how Luke’s lost light saber come to be in Maz Kanata’s cellar, and (4)—for me, at least—what was going on with the visions that Rey had when she first touched Luke’s original weapon (but, strangely, not when she was wielding it in combat against Kylo) which provided (according to that just-above-linked-article; I’ll have to see … The Force Awakens again, which I’m sure I will, to try to better concentrate on these flashpoints) which gave us glimpses of Rey in Cloud City, a cloaked Luke mourning something with R2-D2, the aftermath of a massacre by Kylo and his Knights, young Rey being left on Jakku by her family, as well as quick voiceovers from Yoda (Frank Oz) and Obi-Wan Kenobi (a mix of words from Ewan McGregor and Alec Guinness).  I’m sure that answers to these questions will be forthcoming in Episodes VIII and IX, but for now they’re highly-intriguing-mysteries that just have to serve as incentive for making the coming years go by faster (although at my age you’re not so anxious to deal with such motivations) as we understand better the full transition from the middle-trilogy-Rebel-warriors to the new breed of Rey and Finn (although George Lucas now admits he’s not that sold on the nostalgia-peddling that the new movie’s intended to evoke, preferring instead that the new episodes would explore new ideas entirely, but he also admits the franchise isn’t his anymore so he seems mostly content to not intrude on the directions Abrams has taken, even though they’re not what he’d envisioned for this continuation of his long-ago-creation).

 As for me, I’m quite elated to return to that long ago and far, far away galaxy; reinvest myself in a mythologically-based-plot (Rey and Finn’s call to adventure, descent into the underworld, etc., all from Joseph Campbell’s chronicles of the hero’s journey, just as we saw years ago with Luke) where the new crew of the Millennium Falcon races through the fallen hulk of a Star Destroyer while being chased by “forces” of the First Order (and their scary resemblance to the rhetoric and iconography of our 20th-century-Fascists); then wait patiently to see what comes of it all as I glide gracefully along with these stories toward the next decade of this century, into the next decade of my life.  But if all of that sounds a bit esoterically-lofty (or cringeworthy-corny)—especially built upon the base of a “mere” pop-culture-movie-phenomenon—then I’ll leave you with a Musical Metaphor for Star Wars: The Force Awakens that’s more in line with the foundational-entertainment-purposes of this movie franchise (which has again picked up on some of the humor that occasionally broke the serious tone of those middle-trilogy-episodes) by giving you Bill Murray doing his Nick Ocean-lounge singer-version of the “Star Wars Theme” at AVkHA, with accompanying visuals from the current movie, then take that to a nicely-ironic-level at where Oscar Isaac (quite a fine musician as well as an actor, as he demonstrated in Inside Llewyn Davis [Joel and Ethan Coen, 2013; review in our December 27, 2013 posting]) sings and accompanies himself on guitar, making a transition from “On Broadway” (you could certainly say that the “neon lights” have shined on these Star Wars stories) to his rendition of Murray’s silly song, adding some lyrics of his own that reflect the content of this new, rejuvenating episode.  It's all self-conscious but entertaining, just like these movies.

 Finally, I’ll provide one additional Musical Metaphor, not about anything to do with Star Wars but instead a tribute to Nina’s aching body part by offering her (my most loyal reader, even more so than the talented Mr. Parker) the acoustical-question of “What Is Hip?” from a live performance by Tower of Power in 1977 at VaM (their song’s from the 1973 Tower of Power album, a longtime favorite of Nina’s; the video also has a "Click here for better quality!" button you can engage that gets you an extra 5:00 of music if you like, “Oakland Stroke” [also on the 1973 album] and “You Ought To Be Having Fun” [on their 1976 Ain’t Nothin’ Stoppin’ Us Now album] as prelude to that performance of “What Is Hip?”) because the answer for her in a few months may be “a mechanical leg joint” as she joins Darth Vader in reconstituting herself for the coming years (and trips to destinations far, far away that won’t need to be cancelled at the last minute).  Happy New Year to her and all of you (especially my resurgent followers in Russia who cap off the year with triple the readership from the U.S. in Google’s latest tally; I’d love to say “Thank You” in Cyrillic but my word processer program doesn’t seem to offer that option, at least not that I can find, but maybe “Spasibo,” “Bal’shoye spaseeba” or “Pasib” will be acceptable [I hope so, based on what advice I got from the Internet; no offense intended if none of these are appropriate]).  I’ll be back soon in 2016 with more reviews of heavy-hitter-2015-year-end-releases.
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AND … at least until the Oscars for 2015’s releases have been awarded on Sunday, February 28, 2016 we’re also going to include reminders in each posting of very informative links where you can get updated tallies of which 2015 films made various individual critic’s Top 10 lists and which ones have been nominated for and/or received various awards.  You may find the diversity among the various critics and the various awards competitions hard to reconcile at times—not to mention the often-significant-gap between critics’ choices and competition-award-winners (which usually pales in comparison to the even-more-noticeable-gap between box-office-success that you might want to monitor here and the actual award-winners)—but as that less-than-enthusiastic-patron-of-the-arts, Plato, noted in The Symposium (385-380 BC)—roughly translated, depending on how accurate you wish the actual quote to be—“Beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder,” so your choices are as valid as any of these others, especially if you can offer some rationale for your decisions (unlike many of the awards voters who simply fill out ballots, sometimes for films they’ve never seen).

To save you a little scrolling through the “various awards” list above, here are the Golden Globe nominees for films and TV from 2015. 

Here’s more information about Star Wars: Episode VII—The Force Awakens: (8:55 explorations of 10 questions that have been raised about explanations of so-far-unanswered aspects of this movie) and (13:41 15 background-info-facts [esoteric as some of them may be] about the movie from a British perspective, although some is more pre-release-speculation than fact)

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By the way, if you’re ever at The Hotel California knock on my door—but you know what the check out policy is so be prepared to stay for awhile.    Ken

P.S.  Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

In the Heart of the Sea and Hitchcock/Truffaut

             Old Masters Come Back To Life (in somewhat faded form)
                                           Reviews by Ken Burke
 While the two options under consideration in this posting don’t share enough overlap to be merged into a combined review they do have the similarity of being based-in-fact with In the Heart of the Sea (but not quite as much as you’re led to believe) and using full-on-documentary-factual-mode in Hitchcock/Truffaut, plus they both deal directly with masters of their modes of expression (literature, although it bleeds a bit too much into the reality of the former subject of exploration here; cinema, the latter just tells it like it is, at least regarding superlative accomplishments) so let’s see what’s going on in these in-my-opinion-not-as-successful-as-they-seem-like-they-ought-to-be-offerings.

Take care, curious readers, for plot spoilers gallop rampantly throughout the Two Guys’ insightful reviews.  Therefore, be warned, beware, and read on when you’re ready to be transported to … wherever we end up.  Please protect your eyes from the dazzling brilliance.
                       In the Heart of the Sea (Ron Howard)
Based on the true story that helped inspire Herman Melville to write Moby-Dick, this is an account of the whaling ship Essex that set out from Nantucket, MA in 1819, then the next year was attacked by a huge white whale in the central Pacific Ocean, leading to a lengthy ordeal for the surviving sailors as they desperately tried to overcome starvation while attempting to return to South America.
This is a good example of the lovely Rembrant-esque
lighting used in the interior scenes of this movie.
What Happens: In 1850 aspiring-to-be-a-more-successful-novelist-Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw) travels to Nantucket Island, MA in order to persuade Thomas Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson), last surviving crew member of the Essex whaler, to confirm and expand upon the rumors that Melville’s long heard about this ill-fated-ship.  Nickerson initially sticks to his story that the vessel simply ran aground during its final voyage, but Nickerson’s wife (Michelle Fairley) is more demanding that her troubled husband unburden himself about what happened so long ago (begun on August 12, 1819) when Thomas was just a teenager (Tom Holland).  In flashback we meet dashing Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth), promised by his whaling company to be promoted to captain on his next trip (due to ongoing past successes), although wife Peggy (Charlotte Riley) would rather he command a merchant ship in order to face less danger and not be away so long on each mission.  She nearly gets her wish when Chase finds that his next assignment, on the Essex, is as First Mate due to the classism of the esteemed-Nantucket-whaling-business-hierarchy, given that the intended Captain, George Pollard Jr. (Benjamin Walker), is inexperienced but from a prominent whaling family while Chase is the son of a jailed farmer, raised by a foster family.  However, upon the written promise that if the Essex returns with 2,000 barrels of whale oil he’ll get the long-awaited-promotion next time, he sets sail but immediately has problems with Pollard, exacerbated when the captain insists on sailing into a storm in order to toughen up the crew, a poor decision which results in damages to the ship.

 Pollard wants to return to Nantucket for repairs but Chase convinces him to push on (fearful that his contract will be nullified, further delaying his chances for advancement).  Soon they successfully have their first kill (thanks to Chase’s willingness to risk his harpooner’s boat be pulled under water by a speared, diving whale before the animal dies, then floats back to the surface), but the Atlantic seems depleted of prey so they go on the long journey around South America’s Cape Horn into the Pacific's waters (January, 1820).

 As they restock in Ecuador they’re told of plentiful whales about 1,000 miles westward, yet there's also the danger of a fierce attacker who’s recently caused great damage to a Spanish ship.  Desperate to prove his mettle, Captain Pollard sends the Essex westward (despite the crew’s mutinous-mutterings) where they do find an abundance of their prized victims, but just as they’re about to harpoon the first one an attack comes from a huge, white-ish (not fully achromatic, as Moby-Dick is usually depicted) male sperm whale who disrupts the small boats, then crashes into the ship, greatly disabling it so that the men must rush to offload what little food and water they can into their 3 lifeboats; the Essex would have sunk anyway, but its demise is hastened when the oil they’d previously gathered spills, then catches fire, a blaze that consumes the damaged ship (November 16, 1820).  Once again, Pollard accepts the demand of Chase that instead of heading toward South Sea islands they instead return to South America, a grueling task under hot sun with little nourishment.  Finally, they do see an island where they hope to find food, but before they can reach its shore the massive whale attacks again, although their boats and most of the sailors are safely washed onto land.  After a short respite (and finding the skeletons of other castaways, indicating that no rescue is likely to come this way), they’re off again (4 stay behind, with the promise that they’ll eventually be retrieved); soon thereafter, though, 1 of the lifeboats strays away never to be seen again.  As starvation and exhaustion continue to deplete the survivors (the actors likewise lost considerable weight, in tune with their characters’ plight), a man on Chase’s boat dies so the others hesitantly turn to cannibalism for their own survival.

The outdoor lighting is harsh but effectively-naturalistic.
 Soon, it’s clear that the same food-source-tactic is needed on Pollard’s boat, where he draws the short straw, but he’s suddenly saved when his cousin commits suicide instead of shooting the Captain, becoming the next meal for these desperate men.  Once more the pursuing whale appears, but this time Chase declines to harpoon it (much to Pollard’s dismay, more for revenge than for sustenance at this point), then the currents separate their boats.  Both are rescued, though (February 1821), returned to Nantucket (although by the time anyone returns to the stop-over-island those who stayed there have died) where the ship owners concoct the “run aground” story to dispel fears of sea monsters, even though Pollard and Chase give true testimony at the inquiry.  The former returns to the Pacific in search of the white whale (but truly does run aground that time, ending his nautical career), the latter turns to the merchant marine, pleasing his wife—and daughter born in his absence.  In the 1850-present Melville sets off to write his novel; as he departs, he discusses with Nickerson the report of oil found in the ground in Pennsylvania, a story they dismiss as more of a myth than one about a killer white whale.

So What? I don’t think you could ask for a clumsier title for a movie that’s supposed to draw in big crowds in mainstream theaters, but Howard was likely limited by taking much of his source material from Nathaniel Philbrick’s book In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex (2000), although some key dramatic elements have apparently been added (more on that soon) to give this rendition a sense of the mystical, allegorical elements to found in Melville’s Moby-Dick, enhancing what Philbrick explores about a most unusual (but not so completely unique) situation in the annals of whaling.  Philbrick himself was beholden to 2 first-hand-accounts of these events, one published in October 1821 by Chase, Narrative of the Most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whale-Ship Essex, and the other, The Loss of the Ship "Essex" Sunk by a Whale and the Ordeal of the Crew in Open Boats, written by Nickerson in roughly 1876, then lost until 1960, finally published in 1984.  I haven’t read Philbrick’s book, although from accounts of it I sense the following elements of Howard’s film are not part of the actual history of the assault upon the Essex by an 85-ton-white-whale: (1) While Melville had read Chase’s book he never saw Nickerson’s nor apparently ever met with him (much of how Chase’s account was transformed into Moby-Dick was inspired by Melville’s own sea-experiences in 1839-’40, followed by some time on a Pacific whaling ship from very late 1840-mid 1842); (2) After the Essex was destroyed by its whale attack the beast vanished from their lives instead of following the survivors, damaging their lifeboats as they approached refuge on that island; (3) While I’m sure the whaling-industries-powers-that-were in Nantucket didn’t want to promote the danger to their business’ profitability from awareness of the hunted becoming the hunter of the Essex’s crew, I sense that there was no whitewash (or “greywash,” to dilute the concept of an ivory-toned-monster) of the testimony of Pollard and Chase about their ill-fated voyage.

 In any case, Chase’s story was public knowledge the same year he returned to Massachusetts so that anyone could know the truth, even Melville who’s presented in Howard’s tale as needing Nickerson to confirm secret rumors, refuting the supposed-explanation of the ship’s demise (even as that fate ironically befell Pollard in the Sandwich [Hawaiian] Islands, ending his sailing career in a rather shameful manner but not because he was on a hunt for an elusive white whale).  Another minor problem for me is the older version of Nickerson, in that in 1850 he would have been about 45 years old; if Nickerson looked as old as Gleeson does here (Gleeson himself was 45 a good bit over 15 years ago), then things must have been as horrible during the voyage and aftermath of the Essex as he begrudgingly-describes in this movie because the years have taken a terrible toll on his appearance.  But that’s a minor quibble (likewise, I’m still not able to look at Trumbo [Jay Roach; review in our December 2, 2015 posting] and recognize Michael Stuhlberg as famous Hollywood actor Edward G. Robinson [Little Caesar {Mervyn LeRoy, 1931}, Key Largo {John Huston, 1948}, among many more]—I was going to try to make my case when I did my review but the comparison-photos just took up too much space—although that’s just a minor distraction from an excellent film, just as no one would argue that Michael Fassbender looks much like most of his depictions of Steve Jobs [the turtleneck helps in the final act] in the film of that same name [Danny Boyle; review in our October 30, 2015 posting], so you just have to accept  Stuhlberg and Fassbender for the emotive-embodiment of whom they’re portraying, while a quick math check does prove quite distracting in the Gleeson/Nickerson case, unless you even-more-quickly buy into that advanced-aging-by-trauma-theory) in relation to what I cited in the paragraph above where 2 of the most gripping aspects of Howard’s movie—that the Essex whale wasn’t just protecting his pod but was consciously seeking further vengeance on these hunters of his species even across about 1,000 miles of open ocean and that the Nantucket whaling honchos were as corrupt as the oil barons of today in keeping secret the unknown danger to their profession from highly-sentient-whales—are just fabricated additions to the actual Essex events, which undercuts the power of the whale-tale Howard sets out to share with us.

 There’s one more notable addition as well in this movie, with Chase’s dramatic scene after the survivors move on from the island when the whale appears again but Chase refuses to launch his multi-pronged-harpoon, seemingly in respect for how this presumably-mindless-prey is actually just doing the same thing as the human species, trying to maintain its way of life in an environment where Nature often proves hostile, requiring harsh choices for survival.  You wouldn’t know any of this important extra material was added if you just watch Howard’s version of Philbrick’s account of this generally-unknown-situation (until now), but even the little extra research I’ve done really challenges the larger-context-connection that Howard seems to me to be constructing to more emphatically link his Essex movie to the greater legend of Moby-Dick.

Bottom Line Final Comments: Melville first published his book in 1851 (with its title morphing from The Whale to Moby Dick to the final version as Moby-Dick, although various visual adaptations don’t always retain the hyphen), but it wasn’t all that well received critically nor financially during his lifetime.  Since then, however, it’s grown into a monstrous-modern-classic (with the understanding that “modern” here is a relative term, differentiating literature [and other arts] from its initial-post-Renaissance period into something that changed dramatically as political revolutions began to open up new post-monarchal, post-religious explorations in the arts beginning roughly in the 19th century) that many consider the “great American novel” because of its extensive collage of fiction about the whalers, fact about whales and whaling, influences from the Bible, Shakespeare, etc.  While many may bemoan it as required reading (because of its length, those extensive-non-narrative-asides, and the interweaving of various styles making it anything but a “quick read”), it has a serious presence in the artistic accomplishments of our nation with its lofty themes of God’s will vs. that of egotistical humans (Jonah, Ahab), including whether it’s God, us, or just some overriding power of Fate controlling how our lives evolve (to give you a sense of this here’s a clip from a well-respected-film-adaptation of the novel, John Huston’s Moby Dick [1956], where Father Maple [Orson Welles] gives a sermon [from a pulpit like the bow of a ship] about pride, punishment, and redemption just prior to the Pequod’s tragic voyage under Ahab’s maniacal command—also note the memorials on the walls of the church to previous mariners who’d died in their failed pursuit of whales).

The overall color scheme of In the Heart of the Sea isn't 
as green as many of these photos look, but that hue's 
so dominant in the publicity stills it's proven almost 
impossible for me to correct any better than this.
 Given all that Howard had to work with in possibly addressing himself directly to Melville’s famous book—rather than trying to capture aspects of its mood to further extend the actual parallels with the disaster of the Essex—I can’t help but think that if he wanted to make a high-seas-adventure complete with a large schooner for the sailors, harrowing-harpooning of whales, tension between captain and first mate, and the stunning creation of a huge creature (even if done with computers rather than large models as in Huston’s version) to destroy that ship, I just wish he’d gone all the way and attempted a contemporary take on Moby-Dick (given all that current special effects could render, relative to the clumsy technology available to Huston) rather than having to distort his Essex info so much in order to make In the Heart of the Sea as intriguing as it is with its later themes of respect for nature and corruption by the whaling chieftains.  After all, Melville had already done a similar thing (even though presented as fictional in his case) with his extensions/rearrangements of some of the Essex facts—Melville’s whaler departs from New Bedford (in 1841, reflecting the author’s experience) rather than Nantucket (in 1819 for the Essex); both ships have inappropriate captains (Pollard being too inexperienced for such a task, frequently surrendering his command decisions to the intensity of Chase’s arguments; Ahab abandons his divinely-appointed duty [according to his dissenting-First Mate, Starbuck—Pollard spouts similar stuff in Howard’s movie] to gather whale oil for the betterment of human existence, as well as his fiduciary responsibility to the ship’s owners and his crew to provide a comfortable profit for their work rather than setting out on his own revenge-quest); both crews endure a fierce storm in the process of their voyages (early on for the Essex, setting up the first clash between Pollard and Chase; just prior to the climax in Moby-Dick); the Essex crew enjoys an early kill in the Atlantic but then requires considerable sailing to another ocean to find more prey (similar plot line in the Huston film) while the Pequod must travel all the way to the Indian Ocean before the crew’s initial victories in their intended kills, although they have others after that before their sole focus turns to finding Ahab's hunted-whale; both voyages end with total destruction of their ships by a huge white whale (although all but Ishmael die at sea in Moby-Dick).

The John Huston version of Moby Dick's not in
black & white, but such photos are all I could find.
 Really, if you just want the facts about the Essex you can read Philbrick’s book (let me know if you do in case I’ve misinterpreted what I think Howard added to this source material) and/or you might want to watch this 45:41 doc (from TV’s History Channel, where you’ll find that the Essex sinks, following the plot of In the Heart of the Sea, but doesn’t burn up in the process; further, when cannibalism became a reality on Pollard’s lifeboat it wasn’t him that drew the short straw but his young cousin, Owen Coffin [appropriately named, it turns out; played here by Frank Dillane], so there was no dramatic sacrifice by Coffin, as shown in Howard’s movie, to keep the captain alive), as both of these options provide a fascinating prologue to what Melville will accomplish with his acclaimed novel that for me is still the more compelling story (especially now that I know how much Howard embellished the Essex material with compelling but completely fictional aspects) so I’m recommending that instead of paying full (or even bargain) price for In the Heart of the Sea (well-produced, well-acted as it may be, with some spectacular imagery—although some of the 3-D-renderings result in a background that looks like a painting from a 1930s-movie-studio-attempt at depth-illusionism) you choose instead the Huston Moby Dick which you can likely rent easily or, even more directly, watch on YouTube for free (with the following notable considerations: its running time is about 1:32:00, a bit shorter than the 1:46:00 officially listed for this film so either there’s been some minor editing or it may just run a bit faster than it should in places on the computer [you can tell from the occasionally-higher-pitch of the dialogue]; the color is very desaturated; there’s a bright light in the center of the screen as if you’re looking into a projector; you’ll probably get ad interruptions on the average of every 7 minutes [10 for me in total, all with Blythe Danner promoting Prolia, a post-menopausal-osteoporosis medication {more delightful each time!} although you can quickly skip the ads]—all of this can get damn annoying, but you get what you [don’t] pay for, so it might be still be worth it to you in order to get a better version of what the deadly-white-whale-story implies than what Howard provides, especially given Gregory Peck’s haunting performance as Ahab, the reasonable compression of Melville’s hefty novel, and the seeming-inability of any visual production of this story since then to notably improve upon Huston’s version [with screenplay by him and famed sci-fi-writer Ray Bradbury, although no Oscar nominations were forthcoming for any aspect of this generally-faithful-adaptation of the novel]).

 Finally, if you want to get really deep into what Melville was exploring (and Howard’s just barely hinting at), here's a 47:29 lecture by Hubert Dreyfus (noted Professor of Philosophy at the Univ. of California Berkeley) on “Moby Dick, Existentialism, Heroic Nihilism, Polytheism—Herman Melville” (all audio, though; not much visual accompaniment).  I admire Ron Howard as a filmmaker (especially for Splash [1984]
Cocoon [1985], Apollo 13 [1995], A Beautiful Mind [2001; won 4 Oscars including Best Picture and Best Director], and The Da Vinci Code [2006]), but In the Heart of the Sea is just too much of an attempt to use an interesting premise to capture something grander which that premise once provoked rather than go for the grander-Melville-material directly.  (I’d loved to have seen Howard cast Fassbender as Ahab [now that he’s already taken on another power-mad-antihero in Macbeth {Justin Kurzel}], especially given that he already had to provide the needed technical elements for Moby-Dick just to tell this “premise” story.  Still, I was relatively generous with my 3 stars given the Rotten Tomatoes miserable collection of only 43% positive reviews, with just 48% from Meteoritic; more details in the links much farther below if you're interested.)

 For a Musical Metaphor to speak to In the Heart of the Sea I’ve chosen “To the Last Whale …” (actually 2 songs: “Critical Mass” [a cappella chanting] and “Wind on the Water,” from the David Crosby and Graham Nash 1975 album Wind on the Water) at, with appropriate whale imagery added in this video version; its lyrics about how whaling continues into our day—long after the need for lamp oil—threatening the survival of this magnificent species just so we can continue to use their innards to enjoy the luxuries of makeup, pet food additives, etc. gives thoughtful insights into why Owen Chase, at least in Ron Howard’s telling of the tale of the Essex, opted not to slam his deadly harpoon into his oceanic-adversary when that deadly whale appeared for the final time, out of respect for how this “beast” was simply returning the favor to these humans after all of the death they’d caused to the most majestic creatures still alive on this planet, all for our benefit, all for their destruction (so that even in the mid-19th-century there were already shortages of these animals, especially in the waters of the Atlantic, just as now our singers tell us that “Over the years you swam the ocean Following feelings of your own Now you are washed up on the shoreline I can see your body lie It’s a shame you have to die To put the shadow on our eye…”) because, unlike Mr. Chase’s final revelation that cooled his previous destructive anger toward his antagonist, we still hunt the remaining whales—at times to threatened levels—even though “Its not that we don’t know It’s just that we don’t want to care,” a fine message from director Howard but one superimposed upon the history of the Essex’s catastrophe, leaving us with the impression that a more-factual-rendition of that event wouldn’t have been impactful enough, that additional environmental-editorials were needed to complete this plot, while I’d prefer to somehow see those sentiments incorporated into a lavish-retelling of Moby-Dick where literary license with existing fiction—if needed—(as is so often done with stagings as well as films of Shakespeare’s classics) seems to me to be a more appropriate vehicle for these messages than yet another twisting of history for audiences unlikely to know better (including me at first).
                Hitchcock/Truffaut (Kent Jones)
In 1962 emerging French New Wave superstar-director François Truffaut conducted a series of interviews with established-directorial-superstar Alfred Hitchcock, with the transcripts leading to a celebrated book; in this documentary we revisit audio recordings of some of those insightful conversations plus getting biographies of both men along with glowing testimonials about Hitchcock.
 ln the case of Hitchcock/ Truffaut history has been preserved to be presented to us as it happened (complete with audio transcriptions of the famous 1962 dialogues between 2 of cinema’s greatest directors, conversations that ultimately led to Truffaut’s 1966 book from which this film takes its name) rather than putting in dramatic embellishments to up the ante on the impact of a docudrama such as In the Heart of the Sea, although you could argue that the testimonies given about Hitchcock—and Truffaut, to a lesser degree—serve as glowing enhancements to those transcripts and straight-biographical-accounts, in that the opinions of these several other directors (noted just below) are all intended to further praise the already-lofty-reputations of the principals in this doc, just as Truffaut’s original intention was to replace the perception of Hitchcock as a mere crafty entertainer with an understanding of the man as a cinema artist of the same caliber as Sergei Eisenstein, Eric von Stroheim, Charlie Chaplin, Jean Renoir, Orson Welles (to name a few), so that we get a litany of unmitigated-praise about Hitchcock rather than any attempt to even address in some detail the concerns about disturbing voyeurism and misogyny in his work.  This current documentary is certainly a useful introduction to the careers of its 2 principals, with a hefty amount of working footage and photos of them, enhanced with many clips from their films (especially where Hitch is concerned, given that he’s really the main subject here, with Truffaut’s life and films added for a small bit of balance but not in the equal-treatment-mode I’d hoped for, although I should have known from the start that as a somewhat-visual-equivalent to the concept—if not the structure—of the book that Hitchcock would be the primary focus).

 As with the book, the foundational information here comes from various audio transcripts of the men’s dialogues, visually supported with still photos (including contact sheets of those shots) taken during the conversations, so that we get to directly appreciate Hitchcock’s responses to Truffaut’s questions (although, given that a French-to-English/vice-versa-translator was needed, often you’re straining a bit to hear what Hitch is saying because of the equal volume of the simultaneous French statements; when Truffaut’s speaking—or someone is talking about either of these directors in French—we’re provided with subtitles, if at all a distraction a minor one at most, less so than the overlapped bi-lingual-audio).  Added to this is narration to provide historical context on both men along with a lot of testimony in praise of them from a good number of notable filmmakers, some that I’m familiar with—Martin Scorsese, Richard Linklater, Wes Anderson, Peter Bogdanovich (like Truffaut, primarily a cinema critic before turning to directing), David Fincher, Paul Schrader (another critic-turned-director, but also with a notable career as a screenwriter prior to working directly behind the camera)—along with those I don’t know much about (whether I should or not)—Arnaud Desplechin, Kiyoshi Kurosawa (no relation to the more famous [in my opinion] Akira Kurosawa), James Gray, Oliver Assayas [whom I do know just a bit from Clouds of Sils Maria; review in our May 14, 2015 posting]).  From this group we get a lot of informed comments on our subjects of this documentary 
(a cinematic form that normally confounds my What Happens, etc. review structure, so I’ve abandoned it here), including such evaluations as “fetishism” (even a hint of “necrophilia” in the “perverted” Vertigo [1958]) along with a focus on the Catholic emphasis on guilt and Original Sin in the work of Hitchcock (he was an adherent of that religion [you can search for quite a bit about this aspect of his life, including this article], remaining connected to it long after my own abandonment), compared to the “fierce attachment to freedom” regarding Truffaut.  These observations are strengthened by the directors’ own statements regarding faithful adherence to the prepared script (Hitchcock) vs. openness to improvisation (Truffaut).

 We also get some useful analyses of Hitchcock’s use of high-angle-shots (at times directly overhead, as when detective Abrogast [Martin Balsam] is killed in Psycho [1960]), use of space to give meaning to his scenes, lack of concern with plausibility as long as the plot functions effectively for a large audience rather than a single viewer, and his self-conception as a “writer with the camera” making statements that exist only in audiovisual form rather than stories that are literary in nature.  Hitch died in 1980, at the accomplished age of 80, not that long after an American Film Institute lifetime tribute (including honors bestowed by Truffaut), but tragically his French counterpart followed just a few years later in 1984 at only age 52 (said by the guy who's just now turning 68), with a potentially-extensive-career brought to an untimely end (even as he was preparing another edition of his noteworthy book).  Critical response to this dual-biography has been quite impressive (96% positive from Rotten Tomatoes, 79% from Metacritic; details in the links far below), but I’m not as overwhelmed by it as I first assumed I’d be so I'll now attempt to explain why that's the case.

 Where I can’t be as objective as I’d like to be concerning Hitchcock/ Truffaut is not knowing how engrossing and informative this documentary is for someone who previously didn’t know much about either of these cinematic titans because, while I enjoyed revisiting their careers, I didn’t come across much that I hadn't already learned from years of familiarity with the inspirations, motivations, and films of these men, both of whom are the subjects of innumerable explorations from both scholarly and pop-culture perspectives.  (I note a bit farther below an extensive look at the life and life-work of Truffaut that runs about the same length as this current study; meanwhile, “old master” Hitchcock, who’s the main subject of Jones’ film, has previously been explored in a wealth of existing material, including the book that inspired this most-current-retrospective [still available from Amazon, although paperback copies of the 1985 2nd edition are considerably more affordable], along with other documentaries and interviews that can also easily be found—I’ve cited a couple of them in the links much farther below connected to this film—that might easily preclude you needing to pay for Jones’ version unless it’s playing nearby and you’d just like to see what the most recent take on this topic presents.)  One thing that doesn’t emerge in any of my citations (or Jones’ doc) is how Hitchcock, long lauded by the Hollywood establishment that he was such a successful part of, never achieved what many would consider to be his greatest honor, an Oscar for Best Director (even though popular-actors-turned-first-time-directors have done it with what seems like considerable ease: Robert Redford, Ordinary People [1980], Warren Beatty, Reds [1981], Kevin Costner, Dances with Wolves [1990]—OK, Reds was Beatty’s 2nd-direction but he was Oscar-nominated for his 1st, Heaven Can Wait [1978]).  You could make an argument that he didn’t show the expansive genre-range of someone like Howard Hawks (who never got one of those statues either, although was nominated for Sergeant York [1941]) or whose work with thriller stories didn’t allow for big-themed and/or big-budgeted showpieces (such as with multi-winners John Ford and William Wyler, for example), but given the consistent praise that Hitchcock enjoyed during his lengthy career it’s still one of those Hollywood anomalies that he had to "settle" for the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award (1968) for “Creative producers, whose bodies of work reflect a consistently high quality of motion picture production,” a big honor but where directors are concerned it’s more of a consolation prize.

 However, if you value critical opinion over usual-industry-accolades (which I often do, given the Best Director omissions I cite in the note just below, along with a string of my should-have-won-or-even-been-nominated-preferences for Best Picture over the years), then Hitchcock eventually comes to be recognized as the helmsman of the greatest film of all time, Vertigo, at least according to the most recent poll (2012) of international critics and other cinematic-insiders making such a selection once a decade by the British film journal, Sight & Sound, with one of Hitchcock’s most disturbing stories finally unseating Citizen Kane (Welles, 1941—still my All-Time #1) after its 50-year-reign at the top of this list (a point oddly not mentioned in Jones’ doc).  So, if you’d like to break for a moment here to indulge in this celebrated film (where James Stewart’s character could easily be considered as “psycho” in his own obsessions as was Anthony Perkin’s killer in Hitch’s famous slasher-horror-movie), then here’s the trailer, a very positive review from Siskel and Ebert (no idea of the date, but obviously long after the film was first released yet before both of them died), and another site that looks like the trailer again but it’s actually where you can rent or watch the whole thing if you care to.  (It’s well worth your time, but finish my review first, OK?  I’ve still got more dazzling insights to come.)*

*Regarding Oscar wins for Best Director, though, in all fairness cinema legends such as Michelangelo Antonioni, Ingmar Bergman, and Stanley Kubrick never received this award either, although Bergman got several directing and writing nominations (as did Kubrick), Antonioni won an Honorary Award in 1995 and was nominated for Best Writing, Story and Screenplay-Written Directly for the Screen for Blow-Up (1966), and Kubrick won the Special Visual Effects Oscar for 2001: A Space Odyssey [1968]).  Hitchcock was nominated for Oscar’s Best Director for films from 1940 (Rebecca), 1944 (Lifeboat), 1945 (Spellbound), 1954 (Rear Window), and 1960 (Psycho).  He lost those directorial awards to, respectively, John Ford (The Grapes of Wrath), Leo McCarey (Going My Way), Billy Wilder (The Lost Weekend), Elia Kazan (On the Waterfront), and Wilder (The Apartment).  He didn’t even get nominated for Notorious in 1946 (winner: William Wyler, The Best of Years of Our Lives), Strangers on a Train in 1951 (winner: George Stevens, A Place in the Sun), Dial M for Murder in 1954 (winner: Kazan for On the Waterfront), Vertigo in 1958 (winner: Vincente Minnelli, Gigi [Oh, justice, where art thou?  More so here than in any of these other results.]), North by Northwest  in 1959 (winner: Wyler, Ben-Hur).  If you’d like to see all of the nominees of those various years, please go here, then decide for yourself if he should have replaced one of the chosen few in any of these years (or any others, for another Hitchcock movie—or maybe movies—of high quality that I’ve haven’t noted).

 The other main subject of this current documentary, Truffaut, isn’t explored here as much as is Hitchcock, so if you’d like to know more about him you could watch (After you finish my review, of course!) a BBC biography (1996) about this famous French filmmaker, François Truffaut: The Man Who Loved Cinema, starting with Section 1 at https:// mE (14:48), which focuses mainly on the autobiographical aspects of his debut triumph, The 400 Blows (1959), along with his early love of cinema in post-war-Paris; on YouTube this one should flow right into Section 2 (14:48, at 10dRKU if you need to paste the URL directly to your Web browser to keep the segments running) which continues to show how Truffaut’s life was often reflected in his films and also talks of his friendship with the great cinema theorist/critic André Bazin, along with Truffaut’s beginnings as a filmmaker.  It then moves into Section 3 (9:38, at https://www. with commentary on Shoot the Pianist (1960)—as they call it in the UK, in the US we say Shoot the Piano Player, a marvelous film which I’ve gone far too long since watching again—the deterioration of his first marriage, then the scandalous triangle of Jules and Jim (1962), followed by Section 4 (13:38, at https://www. which starts with his first failure, Silken Skin (1964; called The Soft Skin in the US)— based too much on his own romantic affair and failing marriage which ended in divorce—then the influence of Hitchcock (including Notorious, 1946) leading to the famous book, followed by his next film, Fahrenheit 451 (1966), ushering in a period of commercial success, even in context of the socially-radical-1968 Paris riots.  Next is Section 5 (16:31, at with commentary on The Wild Child (1970), Truffaut’s reality as a great womanizer as reflected in The Man Who Loved Women (1977), the loyalty of his team of collaborators despite his demanding production processes which leads to related commentary on Day for Night (1973, winner of the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar) as it’s a film about the making of a film, his bitter conflicts with fellow-New Waver-Jean-Luc Godard, his work as an actor in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Steven Spielberg, 1977) and his own The Green Room (1978).  Finally, there’s Section 6 (8:53, at about the critical success of The Last Metro (1980), his final years, and his early death from a brain tumor.

 I found it more difficult than usual to pick a Musical Metaphor as commentary on Hitchcock/Truffaut (I’d be glad to hear suggestions of other choices I might have made) because for me it was hard to find a song that spoke to the long, highly-renowned career of Hitchcock (ultimately what this film’s about, much more so than what the insightful observations that Truffaut—a significant cinema theorist and critic prior to becoming a groundbreaking-director in his own right—might have contributed to this study of a man he so greatly admired), even if I just tried to concentrate on the recurring themes of suspense in Hitchcock's plot elements, paralleled with subtle critiques of the supposed-stability of modern-industrial-life (except in such challenges to the norm as Vertigo or Psycho where a good number of inappropriate-deteriorations-of-societal-expectations are in the forefront of the narrative).  Finally, I came up with “Late Lament” at watch?v=SWAmICTFSok (the last entry on the Moody Blues’ 1975 album Days of Future Passed, with added imagery in this video) because not only does it address part of the essential aspect of the appeal of cinema (“But we decide which is right. And which is an illusion.”) but also it notes the underlying traumas that often haunt Hitchcock movies, where characters are more in distress (or denial) that they care to let on (“Breathe deep the gathering gloom, Watch lights fade from every room.”), where difficult choices force them to confront difficulties they’d rather avoid but to do so would only increase their peril (“Bedsitter people look back and lament, Another day’s useless energy spent.”), where even a seeming-happy-ending doesn’t guarantee that more troubles aren’t in store for these people who never wished to be part of a crisis to begin with (“Impassioned lovers wrestle as one, Lonely man cries for love and has none.”).  Hitchcock was a great artist, as well as a successful entertainer, a difficult combination in the economically-driven-world of cinema (although a few such as Chaplin, Francis Ford Coppola, Woody Allen, Steven Spielberg have achieved it, not necessary in each of their films but in their overall careers), but he was also a covert challenger of the assumed-protections of the status quo, a reality nicely reflected in this brief musical poem.

 I’ll leave you with these thoughts to contemplate for the next few weeks as I blend the year-end-holidays (beginning with my birthday on December 17Yikes! It's already here.  Will I ever get these damn things posted at a decent hour?  Probably not.) into a once-in-a-lifetime (at least for me and my wonderful wife, Nina) trip to Cuba into the new year, so I’ll return in awhile with more commentary on the current cinema but even Star Wars: Episode VII—The Force Awakens (J.J. Abrams) will have to wait (not as long as we’ve had to wait for this series to continue, though).  As I exit for a bit, I’ll speak on behalf of Pat Craig (whose contributions to this blog have so far been even rarer than a new Star Wars movie but I still wait patiently) and myself to wish all of you a joyous end to 2015, however you may celebrate, with hopes for peace and better interpersonal, intercultural, international understanding and cooperation for all of us in 2016.
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AND … at least until the Oscars for 2015’s releases have been awarded on Sunday, February 28, 2016 we’re also going to include reminders in each review posting of very informative links where you can get updated tallies of which 2015 films made various individual critic’s Top 10 lists and which ones have been nominated for and/or received various awards.  You may find the diversity among the various critics and the various awards competitions hard to reconcile at times—not to mention the often-significant-gap between critics’ choices and competition-award-winners (which usually pales in comparison to the even-more-noticeable-gap between box-office-success, which you can monitor here, and what wins the awards)—but as that less-than-enthusiastic-patron-of-the-arts, Plato, noted in The Symposium (385-380 BC)—roughly translated, depending on how accurate you wish the actual quote to be—“Beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder,” so your choices are as valid as any of these others, especially if you can offer some rationale for your decisions (unlike many of the awards voters who simply fill out ballots, sometimes for films they’ve never seen).

To save you a little scrolling through the “various awards” list above, here are the Golden Globe nominees for films and TV from 2015.

Here’s more information about In the Heart of the Sea: (very short [2:35] interview with director Ron Howard [he also notes the possible return of the TV show Arrested Development]) and watch?v=DWxflhZUPt4 (3:50 featurette on the relationship of In the Heart of the Sea to Moby-Dick and its ongoing appeal)

Here’s more information about Hitchcock/Truffaut:

If you want to know more about Hitchcock’s career here are 2 other documentaries that also explore him, from the BBC Living Famously (2003) at (54:23, a full biography focusing on his mastery of suspense and terror, but normally in the realm of mysteries rather than horror movies [except for Psycho {1960} and The Birds {1963}]; lots of clips, quick testimonials, and statements from Hitchcock [also includes some commentary on the TV series Alfred Hitchcock Presents {1955-‘65}]) and in an even longer aspect (96 min.) at, a 1976 interview and Q & A with Hitchcock by former Time magazine critic Richard Schickel (wrote there 1965-2010) discussing what turned out to be Hitch’s last movie, Family Plot (1976), along with general comments on his working processes.

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If you’d rather contact Ken directly rather than leaving a comment here please use my new email at  Thanks.

By the way, if you’re ever at The Hotel California knock on my door—but you know what the check out policy is so be prepared to stay for awhile.    Ken

P.S.  Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.