“Leave No Trace,” 2018’s Best Film So Far

July 12, 2018 § Leave a comment

Ben Foster and Thomasin McKenzie in Deborah Graynik’s “Leave No Trace”


For years I watched several movies a week in theaters and more at home; hundreds per year. These days I rarely set foot in theaters, and the last film I saw in one was a documentary. As for features, what little isn’t of the superhero/action variety is usually unsatisfying, and often forgotten by the time I get home.

Further complicating matters are the increasingly compelling original series on streaming services. Nothing I’ve seen in this year has interested me as much as “The Handmaid’s Tale” and “The Crown,” so why make the trip to ArcLight? Fortunately, some relief has arrived via Deborah Graynik’s new film, “Leave No Trace.” Will, a war veteran with PTSD (Ben Foster) hides from civilization in the woods outside Portland with his teenage daughter Tom (Thomasin McKenzie). Father and daughter live harmoniously in primitive conditions until their inevitable discovery by park rangers. Though their re-entry into society yields mixed results, there are no villains or platitudes in “Leave No Trace,” and no violence. Social workers are sensitive and kind, as are Will and Tom’s new neighbors, but Will’s problems have no easy solutions.

Foster and McKenzie are brilliant actors, though it pains me that American characters in this quintessentially American movie are played by an Australian and a New Zealander. Aside from that, I can find no fault with “Leave No Trace.” The film is visually beautiful, as would be expected from its Pacific Northwest setting, but more crucially it captures the passage of time as only film can do. For anyone who longs for movies about humans rather than superheroes, this one’s for you.

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“First Reformed”: Paul Schrader’s Homage to (or Rip-Off of) Ingmar Bergman’s “Winter Light”

May 14, 2018 § 2 Comments

Paul Schrader and Ethan Hawke at the American Cinematheque’s Aero Theater, May 10 2018/Hope Anderson Productions


Spoiler Alert: This review contains plot details
Paul Schrader’s new film, “First Reformed,” is about faith and the loss of it. Rev. Toller (Ethan Hawke), the pastor of an austere Dutch Calvinist church in upstate New York, is a man in mourning for his dead son and failed marriage. Spurning the romantic attentions of his ex-girlfriend, Esther, and suffering from a serious illness he’s determined not to treat, Toller subsists mostly on alcohol while going through the motions of his job. Not that it matters, as only a handful of parishioners show up at services. In fact, First Reformed survives only because it is supported by a much larger church whose leader, Pastor Jeffers (Cedric the Entertainer) regards it as historical monument: before the Civil War, it was a stop on the Underground Railroad. As part of his preservation effort, the well-meaning Jeffers tries to minister to the alcoholic and faithless Toller, to no avail.

Ethan Hawke in “First Reformed”


In his journal Toller writes: “I know that nothing can change and I know there is no hope.” Yet both arrive on his doorstep in the form of a young couple who seek his counsel. Mary (Amanda Seyfried) is pregnant and desperately worried about her husband Michael, an environmental activist who pressures Mary to have an abortion rather than bring a child into a world beset by climate change. Rev. Toller sets out to persuade Michael to embrace life, but instead is quickly seduced by his nihilism. Michael’s suicide propels Toller to greater extremes, even as he embarks on a friendship with Mary that progresses into love.

Paul Schrader, who was raised in a Calvinist church so extreme that he didn’t see a movie until he was 17, knows Christianity’s downside well. So did Ingmar Bergman, whose father, a Lutheran minister, meted out punishments at odds with the teachings of Christ. Set in winter, “First Reformed” reminded me so much of Bergman’s films that I mentioned it to my seatmate, who brought up “Winter Light.” Never having seen this 1963 film, I watched it afterwards and was astounded at the similarities, from the plot to the glasses worn by the lovelorn female characters.

Gunar Björnstrand and Max von Sydow in “Winter Light”


Like Toller, Tomas (Gunar Björnstrand) is the pastor of a small country church with a dwindling congregation. Middle-aged and widowed, he ministers with all the passion of an office worker clocking time until retirement. As does Toller, he mistreats his ex-girlfriend Märta (Ingrid Thulin), who remains desperately in love even as he repeatedly rejects her. Speaking directly at the camera, Märta responds:

I see I did it all wrong….Every time I’ve hated you I’ve made an effort to turn it into compassion….Nothing can save you–you’ll hate yourself to death.

Before he can, however, Tomas hastens the demise of a depressed congregant who, like Michael, comes to him at the behest of his wife. Jonas Persson (Max von Sydow) is suicidal because the Chinese have threatened to use nuclear weapons. Instead of reassuring him, Tomas insists on confessing his own loss of faith:

If there is no God, would it really make a difference? Life would become understandable. What a relief. And thus death would be a snuffing out of life, the dissolution of body and soul. Cruelty, loneliness and fear–all these things would be straightforward and transparent….There is no Creator.

With help like that, why go on? Jonas doesn’t but Tomas does, forging ahead with his ministry because the long-suffering Märta shows up at church when no one else does. A single devoted parishioner is enough, apparently.

Though “First Reformed” has a much more tragic ending, its similarities to “Winter Light” are beyond coincidental. At the screening I attended last week, Paul Schrader and Ethan Hawke spoke at length about “First Reformed,” yet neither acknowledged “Winter Light,” much less credited it as source material. Having seen both, I think Bergman’s film is far better–moving, profound and indelible. Schrader falls back on magic realism and violence to drive home the message of “First Reformed.” Bergman, the unequaled master of realism, needed neither.

“Isle of Dogs,” and “Mozart in the Jungle”: White Men Try to Explain Japan To Us

April 5, 2018 § 1 Comment

The Apocalyptic “Trash Island” of “Isle of Dogs”

Getting Ready for a Trippy Tea Ceremony in “Mozart in the Jungle”

I have mixed feelings about “Isle of Dogs,” just as I do about other Wes Anderson films. On the one hand, it’s an homage to Japanese culture, particularly the films of Hayao Miyazaki and Akira Kurosawa. On the other, it’s a stereotype-laden tale that trots out (pun intended) every conceivable Japanese cliché: Cherry blossoms! Swords! Sushi! Megacities! Machine Politics! None of that offended me. What did were the references to World War II, particularly the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki;the post-apocalyptic Trash Island; the kamikaze-like plane of Atari, the “Little Aviator;” and the island’s deformed and wounded native dogs, survivors of laboratory experiments. For those who might have missed those references, Anderson helpfully provides an explosion with a mushroom cloud.

Anderson and his co-writer Roman Coppola apparently love Japan and have spent time there. But like countless other infatuated gaijin, they can’t resist the urge to explain Japanese culture, despite their shaky and superficial understanding of it. It’s a long tradition among white males that began with Lafcadio Hearn, an Irish-Cypriot journalist and wanderer. As the first westerner to write extensively on Japanese literature and culture, the non-fluent Hearn got so famous that he attained a professorship–in English literature, a subject he was also unqualified in–at Tokyo University in 1896.

These days, the explaining goes on less in books than in movies and television, but with the same mixed results. Roman Coppola does better in the current season of “Mozart in the Jungle,” which has several episodes set in Japan. There the orchestra performs on temple grounds and at a Tadao Ando-designed complex, among other picturesque locations. In other scenes, the Japanese love of classical music is depicted at a bar where patrons go to listen to recordings on high-end equipment. All of this culminates in a tea ceremony attended by the two leads (Gael Garcia Bernal and Lola Kirke) and conducted by a Japanese woman who is a master of the form. So far, so good, but then the characters drink the tea and find themselves in a Kurosawa-inspired bamboo forest, where they speak forbidden truths and achieve the enlightenment that they either were or were not seeking–I forget which because I’d already tuned out.

As in “Isle of Dogs,” the western fantasy of Japan collapses under its own weight in “Mozart in the Jungle,” and soon the musicians are back in New York where they belong. Japan clearly deserves better. It’s absurd that non-Japanese-speaking outsiders feel compelled to explain its complex culture to the world, but as long as there are white male Japanophiles, there will be attempts.

“Icarus”: This Year’s Oscar Winner, and a Documentary Unlike Any Other

March 7, 2018 § Leave a comment

Grigory Rodchenkov and Bryan Fogel in “Icarus”/Courtesy Netflix

For me, the highlight of this year’s Academy Award ceremony was the awarding of the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature to “Icarus.” Timely, compelling and suspenseful, the film has something for everyone, and the fact that it’s on Netflix should ensure the wide audience it deserves.

Because its subject is Russian doping in the Olympics Games, I expected “Icarus” to be a straightforward exposé in the style of most “issue” documentaries: talking heads, incriminating footage and generous voiceover analysis. Though “Icarus” has all these elements, it manages to be far more: a personal film, a sports documentary, a mystery and, ultimately, a devastating portrait of our geopolitical past, present and future.

At first the director Bryan Fogel, an elite cyclist, sets out to prove that drug testing for athletes is “bullshit.” In deciding to make himself a test case for doping, he consults with Don Catlin, who founded the Olympic lab at UCLA and devised much of the drug testing that Lance Armstrong managed to beat. Says Catlin about athletes, “They’re all doping. Every single one of them.” He agrees to advise Fogel on his cheating regimen for the Haute Route, a 7-day bicycle race that follows the hardest section of the Tour de France. Having previously come in 14th, Fogel plans to inject himself with HGH and testosterone to boost his performance.

The phlegmatic Catlin soon bows out, fearing for his reputation. This turns out to be the best gift Fogel could have received as a filmmaker, for Catlin’s replacement advisor is Grigory Rodchenko, the Russian chemist who directed the Olympic lab at Sochi and Catlin’s polar opposite in personality. As charming and charismatic as Catlin is dull, Rodchenko becomes the instant star of “Icarus.” His first appearance–via Skype–goes like this:

Rodchenko: What is your ultimate purpose? You would like to beat doping test? You would like to start your hormonal program? Then give sample, prove negative.
Fogel: Yes.
Rodchenko: Hahaha. You need a very serious advisor because there are a lot of traps.

Like a spy novel, “Icarus” hurtles along from that point on. Rodchenko smuggles Fogel’s urine samples back to his lab and tests them; he passes. Fogel reaps the benefits of doping in the Haute Route until a bicycle malfunction ruins his performance; still, he evades all the drug tests. Meanwhile, Rodchenko’s situation in Russia grows more perilous: fearing for his life, he enlists Fogel’s help in getting out. He returns to Los Angeles and, once there, can’t return: the death of his friend and boss Nikita Kamaev, the former head of Russia’s anti-doping agency, of a sudden and suspicious heart attack, seals his fate as a political refugee. He reveals the methods used by Russia’s FSB (Federal Security Service) in switching athletes’ urine samples during the Sochi Olympics to the New York Times, is subpoenaed by a Federal grand jury, and provides the information leading to Russia’s ban from this year’s Winter Olympics.

Like the view in a kaleidoscope, “Icarus” begins as a small and intricate pattern, then morphs and expands in countless fascinating ways. If you haven’t already seen it, you should.

“Loveless”: Russia’s Entry for Best Foreign Film, and a Masterpiece

February 14, 2018 § Leave a comment

Alexy Rozin and Maryana Spivak in “Loveless”

I’ve seen many good dramas this season but only one great one: Andry Zvyagintsev’s “Loveless,” a searing portrait of marital dissolution and its consequences in present-day Moscow. Like the wintry landscape and sleek apartment blocks it depicts, the film is bleak, bracing and suspenseful. It’s also utterly devoid of cinematic bromides and head and shoulders above the competition. It deserves to win not only Best Foreign Film but Best Picture, despite not having been nominated for that award. For those who prefer movies based in reality, “Loveless” is an absolute masterpiece.

The film opens with a blond boy taking a meandering route home from school along a nearby river. Alyosha (Matey Novkov) is twelve, a loner and the only child of a middle-class couple. Though his family lives in a spacious modern apartment, Alyosha’s world is coming apart: his parents despise each other and are in the midst of an ugly divorce; the apartment is on the market. That night in bed, he overhears his father Boris (Alexy Rozin) and mother Zehnya (Maryana Spivak) fighting and learns that neither wants custody of him. When Boris says he can’t care for his son, Zehnya suggests putting Alyosha in an orphanage. The look of anguish on the boy’s face when he realizes he is–and always has been–unwanted by both parents is heartbreaking and unforgettable.

The next day, we learn that both parents have already found new partners: Zhenya a rich older man whose only daughter is not only grown but conveniently living in Portugal; and Boris a younger woman who is pregnant with his child. Zehnya, after leaving work to have her hair and nails done, meets her lover for dinner and spends most of the night at his apartment, while Boris spends the night with his lover at her apartment. Zehnya returns home late and doesn’t bother to check on Alyosha. In the morning he’s missing, and Zehnya soon learns he skipped school the previous day and hasn’t been seen since.

On the advice of a policeman, Boris and Zehnya enlist the services of a private group dedicated to finding runaways. With admirable skill, they search the woods, riverbanks and a new but abandoned building where Aloysha and his only friend liked to play. When the search party finds no sign of the boy, they paper the area with flyers and search the stairwells, balconies and elevators of nearby buildings. There are visits to hospitals and the morgue, tips about unnamed corpses and a growing sense of despair. Early on, the group leader persuades Zehnya to visit her monstrous, estranged mother to see if Alyosha might have gone there. Their brief encounter is primer on what not to do, both as a parent and an adult child.

Compared with his icy wife, Boris seems warm and cuddly, but he’s just as much a narcissist as she is. A moral weakling whose main goal is to keep his job by deceiving his boss, a religious fundamentalist who fires divorced employees, Boris sleepwalks through the crisis of his son’s disappearance, unable to comprehend its meaning.

In the end, both Boris and Zehnya get new lives but not the fresh start they expected, and Aloysha’s disappearance is not transformative for either. Both parents remain irredeemably selfish in spite of their new partners and homes, and Boris loves his new baby no more than he did Alyosha. But life goes on as predictably as the children who sled outside the family’s apartment, now under renovation by its new owners.

It’s this refusal to indulge in sentimentality that ultimately makes “Loveless” great, as well as a welcome antidote to every film with a contrived ending. It opens theatrically this weekend in Los Angeles but should be more widely available soon.

Remembering the Bel Air Fire of 1961 as the Skirball Fire Rages

December 7, 2017 § 2 Comments

la-me-fw-archives-the-1961-bel-air-brush-fire-20170419

Roscomare Road, Bel Air, During the 1961 Fire, courtesy LA Times Archive

Waking to the news that the Sepulveda Pass was burning yesterday, I immediately thought of the last major wildfire to hit the area. On November 5th, 1961, the Bel Air Fire raced through the Hollywood Hills, burning 16,000 acres and destroying 484 houses. Though there were no fatalities, it was the largest fire to strike the City of Los Angeles, unrivaled until the current one began late Tuesday night.

The Bel Air and Skirball Fires began in similar conditions: fires from ignited brush were spread by Santa Ana winds at the end of an unusually long dry season. Without measurable precipitation or humidity, both catastrophes progressed quickly, flames racing from canyon to canyon along the ridge line of the Santa Monica mountains.

In Beachwood Canyon, the 1961 fire claimed 17 houses, including that of the writer Aldous Huxley and his wife Laura. When I interviewed Laura Archera Huxley in 2007, she vividly remembered being mesmerized by the flames near their house on Deronda Drive. Unable to grasp the urgency of the situation, she and Aldous waited too long to evacuate and lost nearly all their possessions as well as their home.

The Skirball Fire is being blown west instead of east, so Beachwood Canyon isn’t in danger from it. But bone dry conditions combined with tourists who smoke with impunity near the Hollywood Sign puts those of us who live here in constant jeopardy. When I learned that firefighters from our area were being deployed to fight the Skirball Fire, I started packing my bags.

Twenty-four hours later, the situation seems to be improving. But until this winter’s rains begin, fire danger remains, as does our fear. Visitors who ignore Beachwood Canyon’s No Smoking signs should know that all it takes is a single flick of a cigarette to destroy homes and lives. For those who don’t care, there’s a hefty fine for smoking. Let’s hope the City enforces it.

Related articles:

https://underthehollywoodsign.wordpress.com/2014/04/15/why-we-freak-out-when-you-smoke-in-beachwood-canyon/

https://underthehollywoodsign.wordpress.com/2012/07/22/setting-our-house-on-fire-hollywood-sign-tourists-and-their-cigarettes/

In the Ongoing Sexual Abuse Scandal, the Myth of the Studio System Endures

November 13, 2017 § 6 Comments

Louis B. Mayer in his Office

Amid the daily revelations of sex abuse and harassment by entertainment executives, I’ve noticed a large number of online commentators asking, “Why aren’t all meetings held in offices at the studios?”, and “Why don’t actresses refuse to meet producers/directors/actors in hotel rooms?” The implication that everyone has an office in a studio is laughable; a couple of years ago, I read an article by a producer who worked out of his car, which he recommended because he was always driving from one office to the next. As for actors being able to refuse a meeting in a hotel, it’s hardly possible when agents send them there via written instructions on agency letterhead. That these assumptions exist at all is proof the enduring myth of the studio system.

From 1911–the year the Nestor Company set up shop at Sunset and Gower–until the early 1960’s, studios were vertically integrated businesses containing everything necessary for the creation of movies. Each studio owned its equipment– cameras, lighting, props and costumes. Crew members, actors, screenwriters, directors and producers were full-time studio employees. (This explains why credit sequences on old movies are so short: you don’t need a credit if you have job security.) If stars and directors wanted to make films elsewhere, they had to be “loaned out” by the studios that held their contracts. If they were not allowed, which was often the case, they had no recourse. The studio system favored those who preferred steady work to feast-or-famine opportunities. Though it often stifled creativity, it also fostered teamwork, consistency and an impressively large output.

Regardless of its merits and drawbacks, studio system has been dead for over fifty years, replaced by an army of freelancers, yet it’s alive and well in people’s minds. Until I convinced my mother that screenwriters now work at home, she thought they wrote in groups in cramped studio offices, probably on typewriters, but at least she’s old enough to remember when that was true. On social media, people with no memory of the studio system assume that “studios are mini-cities” where actors report for screen tests and meetings. In fact, casting is done by agencies, while meetings take place wherever people happen to be: at film festivals and press junkets, and on location. For a mobile population whose real office is often at home, doing business in hotels is unavoidable.

But let’s assume for the sake of argument that all meetings could take place in studio offices, as in days of yore. When Shirley Temple was summoned to Louis B. Mayer’s impressive office at MGM as a twelve-year-old, she probably thought she was safe. But Mayer, after telling Temple she would be the studio’s biggest star, promptly exposed himself to her.

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