Thursday, February 28, 2019

Films That I Saw: February 2019



Wow, things have gotten crazy all over the world. Venezuela is inches away from civil war while things here in the U.S. are just as fucked up. Even as Fuckhead made a national emergency that is just for his stupid wall while everyone is trying to fight for that stupid wall to not happen. There was also news about some dumbass faking a hate crime to get money and attention as I think the little fucker should be beaten by the community he’s hurt. There was also the Oscars which was a mess as I only watched some of it as I was happy for Alfonso Cuaron, Regina King, Lady Gaga, Olivia Colman, Spike Lee, and the people involved in films such as Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse and Black Panther yet I felt like the show was a mess and the wrong film won Best Picture.


In the month of February 2019, I saw a total of 39 films in17 first-timers and 22 re-watches with 2 of the first-timers directed by women as part of the 52 Films by Women pledge. One of the highlights of the month has been my Blind Spot assignment in All About Eve as here are the top 10 first-timers that I saw for February 2019:

1. The Favourite


2. Kitbull


3. Love in the Afternoon


4. Purl


5. Midnight Express


6. Claire's Knee


7. My Night at Maud's


8. Smash and Grab


9. Fyre


10. La Collectionneuse


Monthly Mini-Reviews

Deion’s Double Play


The most recent new episode as part of the 30 for 30 series is about one of the most talented yet polarizing figures in sports in Deion Sanders who was known for playing both baseball and football as he was largely famous for being in both the Atlanta Braves and the Atlanta Falcons at the same time. The documentary is about the 1992 season which focuses on the time he had to play for both teams in the span of 24 hours just as the Braves were in the playoffs at the time. Sanders manages to play up the persona of “Prime Time” as a man who is a star but also as himself as someone who is humble and can take some criticism. Some of it was unfair from sports analyst Tim McCarver who was just a straight-up racist piece of shit that we in the ATL still don’t like. It’s a fun entry that has the man tell his story as well as not mention that whack-ass rap album he did in the 90s.

Truth or Dare


This was an alright horror film as it play into a group of college students who travel to Mexico for spring break only to play a deadly game of truth or dare that eventually becomes out of control. It’s a film that has some decent performances from Lucy Hale and Violet Beane as well as some moments that are comical in the deaths that include an Asian student struggling to come out to his father who is a cop. It’s got some gore and silly moments but it’s still a fun horror film that at times doesn’t take itself seriously which is the cast with a lot of horror films in recent years.

Purl




The first in a series of short films from Pixar’s SparkShorts program that allows young filmmakers to make short films on a limited budget as the first of these shorts involve a ball of yarn trying to stand out and make something of herself in a world of corporate executives that is mainly filled by men. It’s a delightful short film that does play into the theme of inclusivity but also what one must do to stand out and be herself without having to compromise.

Smash and Grab




The second short film from the SparkShorts program is about a couple of robots working inside a train as they’re connected to the train as they yearn to be free like the robots living outside of the train. Even as they discovered a way to have some fun but are constrained by their lack of freedom as it’s just a delightful and touching short film about friendship.

The Fate of the Furious


A film that I’ve been watching sporadically since it was on HBO/Cinemax last year, I finally got to see it in full as while it’s a step down from its predecessor. It is still a fun film as well as a turning point for the franchise. While Paul Walker is definitely missed in this film, the void that is filled by Jason Statham and Dwayne Johnson does make it fun where the team has to deal with Dom Torretto turning on them when he’s really been blackmailed by a mysterious figure in Cypher (played with such glee by Charlize Theron). While there’s a fun cameo from Helen Mirren, the one new bit of casting that doesn’t work is Scott Eastwood as Mr. Nobody’s son as he’s just fucking bland.

Uncle Drew


A comedy that I watched with low expectations ended up being much better than I thought it would be. It’s about this guy who loves the game yet never feels he’s good enough as he’s trying to get a team for the Rucker Classic as a rival stole his best player. This forces the man to get some old guys to play as hilarity ensue while seeing Kyrie Irving, Shaquille O’Neal, Chris Webber, Reggie Miller, and Nate Robinson in elderly makeup while being chased by Lisa London is just a hoot. Add some funny stuff from Tiffany Haddish as it’s just a nice and funny comedy.

Kitbull




The third film from the SparkShorts program is a traditional, hand-drawn animated film about a stray cat who befriends an abused pit bull. It’s a short that manages to do a lot by saying little as it’s just simple and rich while raising awareness on animal abuse. As someone that used to own a dog and a few cats, this one is extremely touching in terms of the friendship between a dog and a cat. It’s so far the best film of 2019 as if this is what the SparkShorts program is all about. I want more.

Top 10 Re-watches:

1. Once Upon a Time in the West


2. Apocalypse Now


3. Black Panther


4. Pauline at the Beach


5. Witness


6. Inception


7. Toy Story 3


8. Captain America: Civil War


9. The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad!


10. Manhunter


That is it for February as next month will begin the 2019 season with reviews of theatrical releases in Us and Captain Marvel as the latter will have me start work on the next Auteurs piece on Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck. Along with whatever film that is part of my Blind Spot Series, there’s several films from my never-ending DVR list that I hope to see though my stupid cable provider has taken away the Cinemax and ePiX channels unless they get extra money. Before I end this piece, I want to say something about the passing of Mark Hollis of the band Talk Talk who is probably one of the finest artists that not many people have heard other than the song “It’s My Life”. Yet, Talk Talk offered a whole lot more as I recommend listeners to get the band’s last three albums in The Colour of Spring, Spirit of Eden, and Laughing Stock as well as Hollis’ own eponymous release from 1998 as it was music that was really ahead of its time. Until then, this is thevoid99 signing off…




© thevoid99 2019

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

2019 Blind Spot Series: All About Eve



Based on the short story The Wisdom of Eve by Mary Orr, All About Eve is the story of an aging Broadway actress who takes in a fan only to become part of the woman’s life and her circle of friends. Written for the screen and directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, the film is a study of ambition and fame where a young woman takes the place of her idol in every way only to create chaos around her. Starring Bette Davis, Anne Baxter, George Sanders, Celeste Holm, Gary Merrill, Hugh Marlowe, Thelma Ritter, Gregory Ratoff, Marilyn Monroe, Barbara Bates, and Walter Hampden. All About Eve is a ravishing yet riveting film from Joseph L. Mankiewicz.

The film revolves around a young woman who is a fan of this revered Broadway actress as she would become her assistant and later her understudy who would later become a successful actress and usurp her idol. It’s a film that is a study of ambition and what a young woman would do to become successful where she becomes close to the woman she idolizes and then create chaos in that woman’s life. Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s screenplay explores the idea of ambition as it relates to the titular character of Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter) and how she would become part of the life of the aging theatre actress Margo Channing (Bette Davis). Yet the story begins in an award ceremony for Harrington with Margo, her best friend Karen Richards (Celeste Holm), Richards’ husband/playwright Lloyd Richards (Hugh Marlowe), Margo’s lover/director Bill Sampson (Gary Merrill), and famed theatre critic Addison DeWitt (George Sanders).

Much of the film’s narrative is told from the perspective of Karen and Addison as they look back on the time they met Eve to her unexpected rise culminating with this award ceremony. Though Eve starts off as this innocent fan that Karen had seen almost every night during a theatre performance from Channing. It is through her first meeting with Channing that would play into this idea of who Eve is as she claims to have lost her husband in World War II and is from a poor background. Margo takes Eve as a second assistant which doesn’t sit well with her personal assistant Birdie (Thelma Ritter) who is suspicious about Eve as well as disliking her. Margo would also become annoyed by Eve’s presence as she asked producer Max Fabian (Gregory Ratoff) to hire her as his secretary only to end up being Eve’s understudy as a party at Margo’s home has Margo being overwhelmed with everyone else being entranced by Eve except for Birdie while Karen starts to feel bad for Eve.

The script’s narrative isn’t just this study of ambition as well as having elements of character study in Eve and Margo but also feature some dialogue that is fierce and biting. Even as it would play into the second act where Karen begins to realize the things that Eve is doing to Margo during a confrontation as there’s some language that is intense for its time along with connotations that is far more suggestive. It would play into a lot of the troubles and paranoia that Margo would endure upon Eve usurping her where Margo would choose to focus on something else. The film’s third act is about Eve and her rise but also the suspicions about who she is where DeWitt is someone that knows everything and has done a lot to play into Eve’s rise to stardom. Yet, the narrative would return to the film’s opening scene at the award ceremony with a more disturbing aftermath.

Mankiewicz’s direction is largely simple in terms of the compositions he creates where even though there aren’t a lot of wide shots for many of the film’s locations that is shot largely in various theatres and studios in San Francisco, New York City, Los Angeles, and New Haven, Connecticut. Mankiewicz does maintain that intimacy and theatricality into the performances and the usage of space inside the rooms. Even in how the atmosphere of the dressing room is whenever Margo just finished a performance as she is with Birdie, Karen, and Lloyd discussing the night’s performance where Mankiewicz presents all of them in a medium shot where even though Birdie is in the background at a bathroom. Mankiewicz does still put in the frame to play into her importance just as everyone else is talking to Eve. There are camera movements that would happen in the party although there are some close-ups that play into Margo’s own melancholia and growing jealousy towards Eve as she would be confused by Margo’s behavior in a conversation with other party goers.

Mankiewicz would also play into this drama that relates to a woman being aware that she is on her way out as she’s reaching her 40s and know she can’t stay young. Yet, she would eventually accept her fate despite feeling usurped and upstaged by Eve as the look of disdain she gives at the award ceremony in the film’s opening scene says a lot without doing much. The film’s third act that play into what DeWitt has discovered about Eve and what she is trying to do as it would lead to the image that DeWitt and Karen are narrating throughout the film where Eve is to receive this prestigious award. Yet, it would be followed by an aftermath about the realities of stardom where it is clear that it doesn’t last yet it’s about what one will do to survive and share the spotlight with someone else. Overall, Mankiewicz creates an evocative and majestic film about an aging actress dealing with a young fan who would become her understudy and later her rival.

Cinematographer Milton R. Krasner does brilliant work with the film’s black-and-white photography as it is largely straightforward for many of the interiors with its lighting as well as how the stage is lit for performances. Editor Barbara McLean does excellent work with the editing with its usage of freeze-frame to start the main narrative as well as some rhythmic cuts and a few transitional dissolves to structure the film. Art directors George W. Davis and Lyle R. Wheeler, with set decorators Thomas Little and Walter M. Scott, do amazing work with the look of the home that Margo lives in as well as the stage sets and some of the places the characters go to. Costume designers Edith Head and Charles LeMaire do incredible work with the clothes that the characters wearing including the gowns that Margo wears that is designed specifically by Head. The sound work of Thomas T. Moulton is terrific for its straightforward approach to sound including the restaurant sequence and scene set on the stage. The film’s music by Alfred Newman is superb for its soaring and bombastic orchestral score that play into the drama as well as moments that are melodramatic.

The film’s wonderful cast include some notable small roles from Barbara Bates as a fan of Eve in Phoebe, Walter Hampden as the award presenter, Gregory Ratoff as the somewhat gullible producer Max Fabian, and Marilyn Monroe as an aspiring actress named Miss Casswell. Thelma Ritter is superb as Birdie as Margo’s longtime assistant who is often honest about what needed to be said as she is one of the few early in the film that is suspicious about Eve as she is aware that her role in Margo’s life is about to be reduced.

Hugh Marlowe is terrific as Karen’s playwright husband Lloyd as a man who is trying to create great stories for Margo only to find himself attracted towards Eve much to the dismay of Karen as he becomes confused in his loyalty for Margo and his attraction for Eve. Gary Merrill is fantastic as Bill Sampson as a theatre director who is also being courted by Hollywood to make films as he is fascinated by Eve only to realize what Eve wants where he begins to think more about Margo whom he’s been in a relationship with. George Sanders is excellent as Addison DeWitt as a theatre critic who is someone that is close with Margo as he is interested in Eve only to do an interview that would further damage Eve and Margo’s relationship where it’s a low-key yet chilling performance of someone who has a lot of power to make or break someone.

Celeste Holm is brilliant as Lloyd’s wife Karen as Margo’s best friend who would introduce Eve to Margo where she is someone that meant well but notices the tension between the two where she later gets to know more about Eve that would eventually make her uneasy. Anne Baxter is amazing as Eve Harrington as a young woman who is a fan of Margo as she would become her assistant and later her understudy where she is someone that starts off as this innocent figure that is willing to learn yet there’s something about her that is far more intriguing and dark as it has the elements of someone being a total bitch. Finally, there’s Bette Davis in an incredible performance as Margo Channing as an aging theatre actress that is the embodiment of a star as she is a woman that is aware of getting older while dealing with Eve’s presence that would eventually annoy her as well as being someone that is accepting of her fate as she knows that she has a lot more to offer as it’s one of Davis’ finest performances.

All About Eve is a phenomenal film from Joseph L. Mankiewicz. Featuring a great cast led by Bette Davis and Anne Baxter, a compelling yet biting screenplay, amazing art direction, sumptuous music, and its study of ambition and stardom. It’s a film that is entertaining but also filled with characters who are fascinating but also flawed with some willing to accept their faults and others who aren’t aware of what is ahead for them. In the end, All About Eve is a spectacular film from Joseph L. Mankiewicz.

Joseph L. Mankiewicz Films: (Dragonwyck) - (Somewhere in the Night) - (The Late George Apley) - (The Ghost and Mrs. Muir) - (Escape (1948 film)) - (A Letter to Three Wives) - (House of Strangers) - (No Way Out (1950)) - (People Will Talk) - (5 Fingers) – Julius Caesar (1953 film) - (The Barefoot Contessa) - (Guys and Dolls) - (The Quiet American (1958)) - (Cleopatra (1963 film)) - (Carol for Another Christmas) - (The Honey Pot) - (There Was a Crooked Man…) - (Sleuth (1972 film))

© thevoid99 2019

Sunday, February 24, 2019

The Auteurs #70: David O. Russell



Among the group of filmmakers who emerged in the 1990s as an alternative to not just films of Hollywood but also the stylish crime films of Quentin Tarantino, David O. Russell is a filmmaker who started off making films about characters in strange situations and encounter offbeat ideas. While he would be revered for his early films in the 1990s, he would also be notorious for his combative personality that has made him a polarizing figure as he would continue to do so in the 2010s through a series of ensemble-driven films that explore family dysfunction. Though he remains a vital and important voice in American cinema, Russell does maintain a sense of individuality in exploring characters who struggle to be part of society only to find their own voice in the world.

Born in the Manhattan boroughs of New York City, New York on August 20, 1958, David Owen Russell was the son of a Russian-Jewish father in Bernard Markovski Russell and the Italian-American Maria Muzio. Later raised in the northeast suburb of Larchmont, New York, Russell lived in a middle-class household where he was fascinated by the world of films as he would make his first film at the age of 13 with a Super 8 camera to film people in New York City. Through his teenage years, Russell would discover the films from the New Hollywood movement from filmmakers like Martin Scorsese and Hal Ashby as they would be among his primary influences. Books would also be an influence for the young Russell as his mother worked in a publishing house as he would start a newspaper in high school as well as write short stories during that time.

In 1981, Russell attended Amherst College to study political science and English where he wrote his thesis on the United States intervention in Chile from 1963 to 1973 as he would later receive a bachelor’s degree on the subjects. Following his graduation from Amherst, Russell would travel to Nicaragua during its civil war where taught in a literacy program for the Sandinista while working on various jobs in the U.S. while writing many shorts for other filmmakers and do documentary work that eventually got him a job at PBS as a production assistant for the show Smithsonian World. In 1987, Russell wrote and directed a short entitled Bingo Inferno: A Parody on American Obsessions about a woman who obsessively plays bingo while he would make another short two years later in Hairway to the Stars starring Bette Davis and William Hickey as both shorts were shown at the Sundance Film Festival just as it was the festival was starting to become a haven for new and upcoming filmmakers.

Spanking the Monkey


Through his work in short films, Russell would receive grants from the New York State Council on the Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts to make his first feature film. Though he initially wanted to make a film about a fortune cooker writer, he eventually chose to tell the story of a medical student who returns home for a few days only to end up staying in the summer to take care of his injured and depressed mother while his father is away on business. The film would play into the young man’s sexual frustration where he finds himself engaging into an incest-ridden relationship with his mother just as he is falling for a young high school student.

Upon unveiling its premise to producer Dean Silver, Silver agreed to produce the film but Russell was forced to give back the grant from the NEA due to its premise forcing Russell and Silver to get independent funding. Russell would get a small crew that include cinematographer Michael Mayers, editor Pamela Martin, production designer Susan Block, and costume Carolyn Greco for the production that would be budgeted at $200,000 which common for independent budgeted films at that time. The cast would include up-and-coming actor Jeremy Davies in the lead role of Raymond Aibelli as it would include Canadian actress Alberta Watson as Raymond’s mother Susan, famed soap opera/character actor Benjamin Hendrickson as Raymond’s father Tom, and a newcomer in Carla Gallo as the high school student Toni Peck.

Production began in the spring/summer of 1993 at upstate New York where Russell wanted to maintain a low-key approach to the humor that include a few gags of Raymond’s attempt to masturbate in his bathroom only to be interrupted constantly by the family dog. Russell also wanted to play into these frustrations that Raymond endured as he is struggling to leave due to an important internship he is getting in Washington. Even as he is forced to deal with his father’s selfishness and his mother’s emotional and sexual needs where it goes to great extremes.

The film premiered in January of 1994 at the Sundance Film Festival where it won the Audience Award and would receive distribution from Fine Line Features who would give the film a limited release in July of that year. Yet, it would gross more than $1.3 million against its $200,000 budget while receiving rave reviews for its dark humor and uncomfortable subject matter. The film was also a critical success as it would receive two Independent Spirit Award wins for Best First Film and Best First Screenplay giving Russell a major head start into his filmmaking career.

Flirting with Disaster


Following the success of Spanking the Monkey, Russell and producer Dean Silver were given a deal by Miramax to make a new feature film as Russell decided to make another comedy that revolved around a new father and his struggle to name his child while wanting to find his biological parents who gave him up for adoption. The film would mark the first of several collaborations Russell would have with Miramax co-founder Harvey Weinstein as he would support Russell for much of his career as it would be an offbeat road comedy of sorts that involve this couple, their newborn baby, and an attractive yet inept adoption agency employee as they’re later joined by two ATF agents.

While the production would have Russell work with different collaborators including cinematographer Eric Alan Edwards and editor Christopher Tellefsen, the film would be defined more by its ensemble cast that included Ben Stiller, Patricia Arquette, Tea Leoni, George Segal, Mary Tyler Moore, Josh Brolin, Alan Alda, Glenn Fitzgerald, and in their first of two collaborations with Russell in Richard Jenkins and Lily Tomlin. Burt Reynolds was supposed to be cast in a role but Russell eventually changed his mind after hearing about Reynolds’ behavior during an appearance on The Larry Sanders Show. Much of the film’s production was shot on various locations in New York City as well as Kalamazoo and Battle Creek, Michigan, and parts of San Diego and Arizona for the film’s third act.

Russell wanted to play up the anxiety that Ben Stiller’s character Mel Coplin is enduring as he still hasn’t named his newborn son as the road trip would lead to a series of misadventures as well as revelations about his own identity and marriage. Even as the ATF agents who join him are gay and are struggling with defining their relationship publicly as well as the idea of them adopting a child. The film’s third act where Mel would meet his biological parents would play into the lifestyle differences between his adopted parents and his real parents with the former being neurotic Jewish New Yorkers and the latter being hippies where they would meet but not be aware of who they really are.

The film was released in the U.S. in late March of 1996 where it was well-received by the critics as well as doing well in the box office grossing more than $14 million against its $7 million budget. Two months later at the Cannes Film Festival, the film played out of competition and as the closing film for the festival where it was well-received giving Russell his first taste of international praise.

Three Kings


The success of his first two films gave Russell clout that would allow him to do any project as Russell found a screenplay by standup comedian John Ridley about a heist set during the final days of the Gulf War. Russell was interested in the project as he would do some re-writes but would not allow Ridley to be involved as it was the first of many hurdles Russell would endure during the overall production. While Ridley would get a story credit for his script, he wouldn’t allow Russell to use his final script be published in book form. During the film’s early development before Russell would be involved, actor George Clooney expressed interest in starring in the film as he would be on board fully when Russell had decided to do the film. Though Russell wanted Nicolas Cage to play the lead role of Major Arthur Gates, Cage was unavailable forcing Russell to choose Clooney.

For the supporting role of Private First Class Conrad Vig, Russell chose filmmaker Spike Jonze for the role despite his inexperience as an actor as well as Jonze already in production of his first film in Being John Malkovich. Jonze eventually chose to do the part while Ice Cube and Mark Wahlberg were cast respectively as Staff Sgt. Chief Elgin and Sgt. First Class Troy Barlow respectively. The rest of the ensemble would include Jamie Kennedy, Judy Greer, Nora Dunn, Mykelti T. Williamson, Cliff Curtis, and Said Taghmaoui as it would be shot largely on location in the deserts of Casa Grande, Arizona as well as parts of California and Mexico since it was impossible to shoot in the Middle East. With a crew that included cinematographer Newton Thomas Siegel and production designer Catherine Hardwicke, Russell would aim for a different approach to creating a war film that didn’t play with many of its conventions.

Though initially budgeted at $42 million though Warner Brothers wanted to reduce the budget to $35 million, the production would get more chaotic due to Russell’s need for a fly-on-the-wall approach to filmmaking which made things uneasy. Even as Russell would become frustrated and lash out as it included an incident involving an extra who suffered an epileptic seizure on set as Clooney ran to help the extra while Russell was unaware of what happened though conflicting reports said that Russell was indifferent to the event. The tension between Clooney and Russell finally boiled over a scene in a Humvee with a camera mounted on it as the two had a fight onset that added to more trouble though Clooney told Warner Brothers not to fire Russell so that the film could be finished. Though the fight would get a lot of press, the film continued to soldier into post-production with Clooney and Russell agreeing to stay away from each other.

The film premiered in October of 1999 to great acclaim while being a box office hit grossing more than $107 million against its final $48 million budget. Despite all of the trouble with the production and conflicts that occurred on set that was later downplayed by both Clooney and Russell in the years since. The film was overlooked by various film critic groups and in the awards season, the film would widely considered by some to be Russell’s best work for its exploration of a group of men trying to steal gold from Saddam Hussein’s vault and the chaos into the aftermath of war as they try to help refugees.

I Heart Huckabees


After the success of Three Kings, Russell took a break filmmaking as he would spend the next few years working on a screenplay with Jeff Baena that would revolve around the theme of existentialism. It had been an idea Russell had been toying with for years before he made his first feature as he and Baena eventually would make it into a comedy involving existential detectives helping a young man with his own issues. It would eventually play into a story where an environmental activist hires two detectives to help him with these coincidences that he has encountered only to observe a conflict he is having with a corporate executive over endangered marshland. There, both hilarity and absurdity ensue as an executive’s girlfriend/corporate spokeswoman and a fireman also endure existential issues as they’re also aided by a rival nihilist existential detective.

With Richard Jenkins appearing in a small role along with Lily Tomlin and Mark Wahlberg reuniting with Russell for key parts in the film. Jason Schwartzman, Gwyneth Paltrow, Dustin Hoffman and revered French film actress Isabelle Huppert were cast for key roles with Schwartzman in the lead role of the activist Albert Markovski. For the role of his rival in Brad Stand, Russell wanted British actor Jude Law for the role as he would accept the part while Paltrow dropped out of the project for personal reasons as it eventually went to Naomi Watts. The cast would also feature appearances from Tippi Hendren, Kevin Dunn, Schwartzman’s mother Talia Shire, Bob Gunton, Jean Smart, Jonah Hill in his film debut, and Shania Twain as herself yet as production began in mid-2003 in Los Angeles. With an entirely new crew, with the exception of editor Robert K. Lambert, that included music composer Jon Brion. Those involved with the film were in for a chaotic experience.




Tension between Tomlin and Russell would emerge as the two fought as the videos of their fights would eventually be leaked in 2007 as it would add to Russell’s trouble reputation. Another incident that happened during production is when Law decided to leave the production to do a film project for British filmmaker Christopher Nolan leading to Russell putting Nolan in a headlock at a Hollywood party forcing Law to stay put and continue working. Huppert would also have her issues with Russell relating to a sex scene she had with Schwartzman involving mud and a log as Russell’s demands for spontaneity and absurdity definitely made things tense as the production was finished in late 2003 with much of its post-production occurring in 2004.

The film made its premiere at the Toronto Film Festival in September 2004 followed by its limited theatrical release in the U.S. and Canada with a wide release following weeks later. The critical reception was mixed with some praising the film for its absurdist humor and exploration of existentialism while others felt the film was a total mess. The film only made $20 million worldwide to cover its total budget despite not being a commercial film. Nevertheless, Russell was able to get his long-awaited passion project made as the film would eventually gain a cult following.

Soldier’s Pay




With the Iraq War becoming news around the world, Warner Brothers decided to re-release Three Kings in a special limited release in theaters as well as on DVD. Russell was approached to provide some stories about the film but he instead chose to make a documentary short film about the war with Tricia Regan and Juan Carlos Zaldivar. The 35-minute short would have Russell, Regan, and Zaldivar interview soldiers, military officers, activists, and a few Iraqi actors who appeared in Three Kings as they all discuss the current war as well as the social and political tension happening in America at the time along with why is the war happening.

Russell planned to have the film be released before November 2004 during a contentious election year yet Warner Brothers cancelled its release and refused to have the film be accompanied with the theatrical re-release of Three Kings. Still, Russell was able to get the film shown in its entirety at the Independent Film Channel on the day before Election Day 2004. The film was well-received as it showed different sides of what people thought as opposed to the more leftist-views of Michael Moore and his documentary film Fahrenheit 9/11.

Troubled Production of Nailed and its eventual film in Accidental Love


In the mid-2000s, Russell met writer Kristen Gore who was the daughter of former American vice president Al Gore as she had written a book about a woman who fights for health care after getting a nail shot in her head due to a freak accident. Russell felt the book had some unique ideas for a film as he and Gore would work on a screenplay that would play into a woman fighting for health care support due to her lack of health insurance while she would have sexual urges due to her injury and fall for a congressman who would later exploit her injuries. The project would take years to develop as it was first developed by producers Douglas Wick and Lucy Fisher before Russell’s involvement as it would be producer David Bergman who had given Russell, Wick, and Fisher $26 million to get the project made under his new production company Capitol Films.

The cast would include Jessica Biel, Jake Gyllenhaal, Tracy Morgan, James Marsden, Catherine Keener, Paul Reubens, Beverly D’Angelo, Kurt Fuller, Kirstie Alley, Bill Hader, and Malinda Williams as production began in April of 2008. For the role of House Speaker Buck McCoy, James Caan was cast in the role but left the project due to creative disagreements with Russell over the fate of his character as he would be replaced by James Brolin. Caan’s departure was the first of many problems for the film as it the 2007-2008 financial crisis would impact the film’s production leading to delays and shutdowns that would start to occur frequently. For Russell, the experience was becoming increasingly problematic as he found himself dealing with a crew that wasn’t getting paid that would force Biel and Gyllenhaal to walk out of the film.

With only two days left into the shooting where Biel had to shoot the scene of getting a nail shot in her head, Capitol Films went into bankruptcy in 2010 as the film’s financier Ronald Tutor took control and tried to get Russell back to finish the film for re-shoots but Russell chose not to return as would Wick and Fisher who lost money in their involvement. Tutor and former Capitol executive Kia Jam would supervise the re-shoots as well as hire Dave Jeser and Matt Silverstein for the re-writes with Biel and Morgan participating in the re-shoots due to the contracts they signed.

In 2014, Millennium Entertainment bought the rights of the film and its property for an undisclosed sum leading to its release under the new title Accidental Love in February of 2015 on video-on-demand and a limited theatrical release a month later and a home video release in the following month. Russell did succeed in getting his named removed with the Director’s Guild of America under the pseudonym Stephen Greene instead of the traditional Alan Smithee pseudonym. The film would receive poor reviews while only making less than $140,000 in the box office. For Russell, the experience of Nailed was a disastrous one as it would mark a major dent into his already troubled career.

The Fighter


Following the traumatic experience that was Nailed, Russell was lost as he already had a troubled reputation and was part of a chaotic production as not many were eager to hire him. Then came one of his collaborators in Mark Wahlberg who had been developing a film project based on the life of welterweight boxer Micky Ward and his older half-brother Dicky Eklund since 2005 after rights about their story had bought two years earlier. In 2007, Darren Aronofsky was asked to direct the film with Wahlberg as Ward and Brad Pitt as Eklund but the latter dropped out as he would later be replaced by Christian Bale while Aronofsky left the project to work on The Wrestler. It was then that Wahlberg suggested that Russell should do the film while Aronofsky would support Russell on the project as the film’s executive producer.

With a cast that would feature Amy Adams as Ward’s girlfriend/future wife Charlene Fleming and Melissa Leo as Ward/Eklund’s mother Alice Eklund-Ward, the film would be a co-production between Paramount Pictures and the Weinstein Company with the latter handling all international rights as well as provide half of the film’s $25 million budget. The film would mark a reunion between Russell and editor Pamela Martin who had edited Spanking the Monkey nearly 15 years ago as production began in July of 2009 for a 33-day shoot where Bale had lost a lot of weight months earlier to play the drug-addicted Eklund. Wahlberg had also prepared himself to be in shape to play Ward as the film would explore the relationship between Ward and Eklund as well as this air of favoritism from their mother towards the latter who is convinced he is going to have a comeback despite his addiction to crack.

The limited schedule and budget would help Russell who had been through highs and lows as the film would mark a major transition for him as a director who made offbeat films about individuals trying to find themselves and hope to make their lives better despite their environments and situations. With this film, it marked the beginning of a new chapter for Russell who would make films based on other people’s work or based on real-life personalities. While some felt this film and the ones that would follow were more Oscar-bait films in comparison to Russell’s earlier work, the film would showcase a newfound maturity in Russell in his approach to handling large ensembles as well as family dynamics that is key to the story in the relationship between Ward and Eklund. Notably as Ward at first feels held back by Eklund and his troubles until its second half when Eklund starts to clean up and help his younger brother become the legendary boxer that would later have this classic trilogy of fights against Arturo Gatti from 2002 to 2003.

The film premiered in December of 2010 for Oscar consideration as it received rave reviews while becoming a major commercial hit grossing more than $93 million in the U.S. with a worldwide total of $129 million against its $25 million budget. The film’s success would revive Russell’s career as the film would garner six Oscar nominations including Best Picture and Best Director for Russell where it would win two for Best Supporting Actor to Christian Bale and Best Supporting Actress to Melissa Leo despite some controversial Oscar campaigning from the latter.

Silver Linings Playbook


The success of The Fighter would give Russell a way back into the good graces of the film industry as he opted to take part in a project he had been developing in an adaptation of Matthew Quick’s novel about a man who has been released from a mental hospital following a mental breakdown over his wife his wife’s infidelities as he would later befriend a young troubled woman. It was a film Russell would develop with the help of filmmaker Sydney Pollack before Pollack’s passing in May of 2008. Russell had a personal connection with Quick’s novel as his son was suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder and bipolar disorder which prompted him to work and re-write the script several times throughout the years. While Russell was also involved in developing another project in Seth Grahame-Smith’s novel Pride and Prejudice and Zombies with actor Bradley Cooper, the project fell apart though it would mark the start of a collaboration between Russell and Cooper as the latter would play the lead role of Pat Solitano Jr.

While there were several other actors including Vince Vaughn and Mark Wahlberg that had interest in playing Solitano before Cooper was cast, Russell wanted Zooey Deschanel for the role of Tiffany Maxwell in its early development until Anne Hathaway was cast upon Cooper’s involvement. Yet, Hathaway was forced to drop out due to scheduling conflicts as Russell looked for other actresses with the help of casting directors Mary Vernieu and Lindsay Graham who would become part of Russell’s new group of collaborators that included editor Jay Cassidy. It would be Jennifer Lawrence that would play the role of Maxwell despite Russell’s misgivings about Lawrence’s young age at the time as she was 21 and Cooper was 38 during production. The ensemble would also include Jacki Weaver and Robert de Niro as Solitano’s parents, Anupam Kher as Solitano’s therapist Dr. Cliff Patel, Chris Tucker as a mental patient in Danny McDaniels, Shea Whigham as Solitano’s older brother Jake, John Ortiz as Pat’s friend Ronnie, and Julia Stiles as Ronnie’s wife/Tiffany's older sister Veronica.

The production would be shot on location in Philadelphia where the story was set as well as be set during the 2008 Philadelphia Eagles football season where the 33-day shoot began in late 2011/early 2012 for the fall/winter period. Russell would hire choreographer Mandy Moore to help create a dance number for the film’s climatic dance with Pat and Tiffany as the latter is hoping to participate in a dance competition. Russell wanted to explore the ideas of OCD and bipolar where de Niro’s character is someone who doesn’t know he’s got OCD due to his love for the Philadelphia Eagles though he is still a caring father. Russell also would use flashbacks that played into Pat’s mental breakdown upon seeing his wife in the shower with another man and certain things that would trigger his anger. The film also explored grief as it relates to Tiffany who lost her husband some months ago and has become anti-social to play her into her grief.

The film premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in September 2012 where it won the festival’s top prize in the People’s Choice award that was followed by a limited release in November of that year as it would expand into the next month. The film would garner rave reviews as well as be a big box office hit grossing more than $100 million in the U.S. and a worldwide total of $236 million against its $21 million budget. The film would gain many critics prizes as well as eight Oscar nominations including Best Picture, Best Actor for Bradley Cooper, Best Supporting Actor to Robert de Niro, Best Supporting Actress to Jacki Weaver, Best Film Editing, and two nominations for Russell for direction and adapted screenplay. The film’s sole Oscar win went to Jennifer Lawrence for Best Actress as it would make Russell the go-to filmmaker for ensemble-based comedy-dramas.

American Hustle


The back-to-back critical and commercial successes not only has given Russell some clout but also the chance to make films that mainstream audiences wouldn’t normally see as his next project would be about the Abscam operation of the late 1970s/early 1980s where he picked up Eric Warren Singer’s script then titled American Bullshit that was part of the 2010 blacklist of unproduced screenplays. After attempts to get the film made including as a project that was to be directed by Ben Affleck, Russell eventually got the script and did re-writers with Singer’s involvement as he considered the film to be the final film in a loosely-based trilogy of films where ordinary people living passionate lifestyles. Retaining many of his collaborators as well as gain a new collaborator in cinematographer Linus Sandgren, Russell went ahead to get the film rolling with its $40 million budget.

The ensemble would feature many of Russell’s regulars as they returned to play key roles that include Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Jennifer Lawrence, and Bradley Cooper along with small contributions from Robert de Niro, Shea Whigham, Paul Herman, and Elisabeth Rohm. The cast would also include Jeremy Renner as the main part of the film’s ensemble as it would revolve around a FBI agent who hires a couple of con artists to find and implicate politicians involved in corruption in exchange for not serving prison time where Bale and Adams played the con artists, Cooper as the FBI agent, Lawrence as one of the con artist’s spouse, and Renner as a local politician. Production began in March of 2013 for a two-month shoot in and around Boston as well as Worcester and parts of New York City as New Jersey.

Though production was briefly halted due to the Boston marathon bombing, Russell was able to get the production on schedule as it was set for a theatrical release later that December. Russell wanted to play up the chaos of this operation where Bale and Adams’ characters just con people to live a lavish lifestyle as they fall in love with each other though Bale is married to Lawrence as he cares deeply for her son. Even as Bale’s character who is supposed to con Renner ends up befriending him and realize that Renner is just someone that wants to do good for his state. It is Cooper trying to bust Renner and become a hero to the FBI where Bale and Adams find themselves in a situation way over their heads and would make a deal in an attempt to set things right.

The film premiered in mid-December 2013 to excellent reviews as well as being a major box office hit grossing more than $150 million in the U.S. and another $100 million worldwide. The film would land in many year-end top 10 lists as well as secure 10 Oscar nominations including a third Best Director nomination for Russell who also received a nomination for Best Original Screenplay with Eric Warren Singer. While the film would also garner other accolades including Best Film from the New York Film Critics Circle that also awarded Jennifer Lawrence its Best Supporting Actress prize and a Screen Actors Guild award for its entire ensemble. The film’s success would make Russell a major player in Hollywood.

Joy


A month after the release of American Hustle, Russell immediately signed on to do a bio-pic on inventor/entrepreneur Joy Mangano with Jennifer Lawrence playing Mangano. With a script written by Annie Mumolo who co-wrote the script for the 2011 comedy Bridesmaids, Russell would do some re-writes with Mumolo’s involvement as he would cast Robert de Niro as Mangano’s father as well as create a small role for Bradley Cooper making the film their third collaboration with Russell. Along with Elisabeth Rohm in the role of Mangano’s half-sister Peggy, the ensemble would also include Edgar Ramirez, Diane Ladd, Dascha Polanco, Virginia Madsen, Isabelle Rossellini, and Melissa Rivers portraying her late mother Joan.

Though the development and casting for the film with many of Russell’s other collaborators went on for a year, it would help play into the idea of what Russell wanted as it also played into the many family dysfunctions Mangano had to endure. Russell would wait for the actors to finish other commitments as he would continue to re-work the script as it would be set in the early 1990s. Shooting finally began in February 2015 for a shoot that lasted more than a month on location in Boston and nearby locations in the city. Russell would use flashbacks and other narrative devices that play into Mangano’s life that include her failed marriage, her battles with her overachieving half-sister, and the struggle to make something of herself.

One aspect of the narrative that Russell wanted to do was have it partially told by Mangano’s grandmother Mimi who is portrayed by Diane Ladd as it would be a device that ended up creating a messy narrative. Even as it would play into some of the traits of recent films where Russell wanted to tell the story of this woman but also about her messy family who all want something from her. Particularly as she would come up with an innovative idea and learn about some of the dark and cutthroat aspects of the business.

The film premiered in December 2015 as part of a crowded holiday film release that included Star Wars: The Force Awakens where although it did modestly well making more than $100 million worldwide against its $60 million budget. The film didn’t get the same critical and commercial response in comparison to Russell’s previous films as critics had issues with its narrative though many did praise Jennifer Lawrence’s performance that would give an Oscar nomination for Best Actress.

Past Forward




Following a break from making films, Russell took part in a project for Prada in a short film that would feature a massive ensemble that include Allison Williams, John Krasinski, Freida Pinto, Kuoth Weil, Sinqua Walls, Connie Britton, Paula Patton, Sacha Baron Cohen, Garry and Jason Clemmons, Jason and Randy Sklar, and Jack Huston who had previously worked with Russell in American Hustle. The 12-minute short that features a lot of the music from films of Alfred Hitchcock plays as this homage to Hitchcock where Williams, Pinto, and Weil are dreaming as they’re being chased by a couple of photojournalists that lead to all sorts of strange events. It’s a fascinating short film shot in black-and-white that showed Russell wanting to create something offbeat.

While there is no word on what David O. Russell will do next following news that a possible TV project with Amazon had been cancelled. There is no question that he is one of American cinema’s best living working directors at this point. Whether it’s in making offbeat comedies or dramatic features with dysfunctional people, he is definitely a filmmaker that is willing to tell stories that are wild or intimate with characters that people can care about. While he might have a reputation that is polarizing and controversial, there is no question that he at least does have some engaging stories to tell and will continue to do so.

© thevoid99 2019

Saturday, February 23, 2019

Public Enemies




Based on the non-fiction novel Public Enemies: America’s Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-1934 by Bryan Burrough, Public Enemies is the story of the final year of bank robber John Dillinger that features his relationship with Billie Frechette as well as being pursued by FBI agent Melvin Purvis. Directed by Michael Mann and screenplay by Mann, Ronan Bennett, and Ann Biderman, the film is look into the final years of Dillinger’s life as well as the manhunt lead by Purvis as Dillinger is portrayed by Johnny Depp and Purvis is portrayed by Christian Bale. Also starring Marion Cotillard, Stephen Dorff, Channing Tatum, Jason Clarke, David Wenham, Lili Taylor, Giovanni Ribisi, Stephen Lang, and Billy Crudup J. Edgar Hoover. Public Enemies is a riveting and intense film from Michael Mann.

Set from 1933 to 1934 during the Great Depression, the film is about the final year of John Dillinger who was notorious for robbing banks as he is being pursued by Melvin Purvis upon the formation of the Federal Bureau of Investigation led by J. Edgar Hoover. It’s a film that explores what some considered to be the golden age of bank robberies with gangsters robbing places left and right with no one to challenge them until the formation of the FBI where Hoover hires Purvis to hunt Dillinger after Purvis had taken down another gangster in Pretty Boy Floyd (Channing Tatum). The film’s screenplay by Ronan Bennett, Ann Biderman, and Michael Mann has a unique structure where much of its first half is about Dillinger’s success in robbing banks but also not killing innocent people as he maintains a folklore persona for robbing banks and helping people in need.

It is also around this time he would meet Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard) who would become his girlfriend as the relationship would be something Dillinger cherishes. Yet, Frechette would be the key to Purvis in trying to find Dillinger as the film’s second half is about Dillinger’s fall where he would get captured and later break out of prison only to learn that members of his gang are scattered with a few he can rely but also other gangsters who play by different rules. It would force Dillinger to rely more on Frechette and hide but also know that Purvis is determined to capture him and bring him to justice. It is a film that does play into a world that is changing where criminals used to have ideas and rules in what they have to do but power eventually becomes misused leading to people of power from the government to handle matters.

Mann’s direction is stylish in its approach to hand-held cameras to capture the action as well as shooting the film on high-definition digital video instead of the traditional 35mm where the look of the film has a crudeness in some of its movements and scenes where the camera shakes. It adds to its offbeat look where it gets a lot of detail in the visuals yet it does feel jarring at times as it is a step away from the norm expected in a gangster film. Shot on various locations in Columbus, Wisconsin as well as various towns in Illinois and Wisconsin along with parts of Chicago and Milwaukee. Along with actual locations where Dillinger did some of his robberies, Mann would maintain an air of grittiness to the visuals as well as use flares for scenes at night that play into the suspense and drama. Even as Mann would use wide shots not just in getting a scope of the locations but also in scenes where some of Purvis’ men are hiding to see where Dillinger could be as well as the scene early in the film where Purvis goes after Pretty Boy Floyd.

Mann’s usage of close-ups and medium shots also add to the drama and suspense where it does play into some of the situations that Dillinger and Purvis put themselves through as well as the exchanges they have with other characters. While there are some dramatic liberties in the film that relate to some of the people Dillinger meet like Baby Face Nelson (Stephen Graham) as well as when Pretty Boy Floyd was killed. Mann does use the rise-and-fall narrative of Dillinger that play into a man who is considered a folk hero yet just wants to have money and have a good time but is aware that time is running out for him. The film’s climax is all about the locations and geography where Mann takes great care into the events that would mark an end of an era for the world of the gangsters and the emergence of a new world order. Overall, Mann crafts a gripping and rapturous film about the final year in the life of John Dillinger and the manhunt led by Melvin Purvis.

Cinematographer Dante Spinotti does excellent work with the film’s cinematography in its approach to low-key lighting and the usage of available light to get a grittiness of the film though it does have that crude look expected from digital video that is jarring at times. Editors Paul Rubell and Jeffrey Ford do brilliant work with the editing with its usage of jump-cuts and other rhythmic cuts to play into the action and suspense. Production designer Nathan Crowley, with set decorator Rosemary Brandenburg plus art directors Patrick Lumb and William Ladd Skinner, does amazing work with the look of some of the places re-created including restaurants, houses, and other places the characters go to. Costume designer Colleen Atwood does fantastic work with the costumes from the stylish dresses that the women wore including Billie’s fur coat and the suits the men wore in those times.

Special effects supervisor Bruno Van Zeebroeck and visual effects supervisor Robert Stadd do terrific work with some of the special effects that relate to the action along with a few set-dressing pieces in the visual effects. Sound editors Laurent Kossayan and Jeremy Peirson do superb work with the sound as it play into the atmosphere of the locations as well as the sounds of gunfire and sirens that add to the suspense. The film’s music by Elliot Goldenthal is wonderful for its bombastic string arrangements that add to the drama and suspense to play into the grandeur of Purvis’ manhunt while music supervisors Bob Badami, Bruce Fowler, and Kathy Nelson create a soundtrack that features a lot of the music of the times ranging from jazz, blues, ragtime, and pop that would become standards of the time.

The casting by Avy Kaufman and Bonnie Timmermann is great as it feature some notable small roles from Matt Craven as FBI agent Gerry Campbell, Carey Mulligan as a young woman in Carol Slayman who provides Dillinger and his gang a hideout, Leelee Sobieski as Dillinger’s date Polly Hamilton on the night of his death, Branka Katic as another date of Dillinger in Anna Sage on that night, Emile de Ravin as a girlfriend of one of Dillinger’s friends, Bill Camp as the gangster Frank Nitti who refuses to help Dillinger during the second half to cover their bookkeeping scheme, John Ortiz and Domenick Lombardozzi as a couple of Nitti’s men, Giovanni Ribisi as a gangster in Alvin Karpis, Lili Taylor as Sheriff Lillian Holley whose prison would hold Dillinger for a while, David Wenham and Spencer Garrett as two of Dillinger’s men in their respective roles as Harry Pierpont and Tommy Carroll, and Michael Bentt as the prisoner Herbert Youngblood who helped Dillinger break out of prison during the second half.

Jason Clarke and Stephen Dorff are terrific in their respective roles as Red Hamilton and Homer Van Meter as a couple of Dillinger’s associates who are among his closest allies with Clarke being the closest of the two who helps him escape and handle small matters while Dorff is the getaway driver who also knows what not to do. Stephen Graham is superb as Baby Face Nelson as a gangster who is violent and unruly as he is the kind of person Dillinger is reluctant to associate himself with while Channing Tatum is fantastic in his brief one-scene performance as Pretty Boy Floyd as a young gangster who gets gunned down by Purvis. Stephen Lang is excellent as the Texas Ranger Charles Winstead as the man who would kill Dillinger as he is also someone that is a man of principle and honor where he helps Purvis in pursuing Dillinger. Billy Crudup is brilliant as J. Edgar Hoover as Dillinger’s supervisor who is the public face of the FBI whom he’s just started as he ensures America that the world of crime will end.

Marion Cotillard is incredible as Billie Frechette as the woman who would be the love of Dillinger’s life in his final year as she would learn about who he is and would help him while unknowingly be used as bait to get him where it’s a performance that has Cotillard display a toughness as well as gracefulness that isn’t expected in characters that play a certain type. Christian Bale is marvelous as Melvin Purvis as a FBI agent who is tasked to pursue Dillinger with different methods as he is a cunning and cautious man that just wants to put Dillinger behind bars but is also someone that wants to do what is right where he later finds himself not agreeing with Hoover’s ideals. Finally, there’s Johnny Depp in a phenomenal performance as John Dillinger as the famed bank robber who likes to steal money and live a good life but is also someone that doesn’t kill unless it is necessary as it’s a low-key yet charismatic performance from Depp who displays charm as well as a melancholia as it relates to Dillinger’s fall.

Public Enemies is a remarkable film from Michael Mann that features great performances from Johnny Depp, Christian Bale, and Marion Cotillard. Along with its ensemble cast, high-octane action, gritty presentation, and sumptuous music soundtrack, it’s a film is intense while play into the thrill of a period in time that was dangerous. Though its presentation is flawed due to the jarring visuals in the high-definition digital, it is still a film expected from Mann in its approach to showcasing the world of the gangsters during the Great Depression. In the end, Public Enemies is an awesome film from Michael Mann.

Michael Mann Films: (The Jericho Mile) – Thief - (The Keep) – Manhunter - (L.A. Takedown) – The Last of the Mohicans - (Heat) – (The Insider) – AliCollateral – (Miami Vice) – Blackhat - (The Auteurs #74: Michael Mann)

© thevoid99 2019