Archive for the ‘Movies’ Category

“In the early ’80s Miami was not the place to be.”
Photographer Gary Monroe

Last week I watched the documentary The Last Resort on Netflix and I found it fascinating.  The focus of the documentary is on photographers Andy Sweet and Gary Monroe as Miami Beach transitions from a Jewish retirement haven, to home for Haitian and Cuba immigrants, to the trendy place it is known for today.

One of the reasons The Last Resort interested me is because I was in Miami in the early eighties. After I saw the doc I tracked down a photo I’d taken while I was in film school at the University of Miami that was my version of capturing that era for a photography class. This photo isn’t as good as the work Sweet and Monroe were doing, but hey, I was just 20 years old. (If I recall correctly, this shot was taken at the Hialeah Park Race Track in 1981 or 1982.)


P.S. The video below on Gary Monroe was produced by Eric Breitenbach of Daytona State College. A talented photographer, filmmaker, and teacher who I met many years ago when I bought one of his photos to put on a set of a project I was directing.

Scott W. Smith

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“***** (5-Stars!) A miracle. Amazing Grace doesn’t have a plot—just a voice touched by God. (An) indispensable gift. Aretha… in all her thrilling glory.”
– Peter Travers, ROLLING STONE

Sometimes these things just line up in the right order. In yesterday’s post I mentioned playing the Judy Collins version of “Amazing Grace” in the hour before my mom took her last breath at the end of a long life. A few minutes ago I learned that the documentary Amazing Grace featuring Aretha Franklin begins playing today at the Enzian Theatre in Maitland, Florida—less than three miles away from where my mother died.

Looking forward to seeing this over the weekend.

Scott W. Smith 

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Unless you’ve been stuck under a avalanche in Colorado the past few days you can’t have missed that Captain Marvel starring Brie Larson opens tonight. Here’s what the IMDB slash page looks as I type this post. But you may have missed that movie has Iowa roots.

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Captain Marvel co-directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (who also co-wrote the film with Geneva Robertson-Dworet) shot their first narrative indie film Sugar (2008) in Davenport, Iowa. Actually, in the same Quad City area along the Mississippi River that A Quiet Place screenwriters Scott Beck and Bryan Woods first started making films together as youngsters.

And the last feature Boden and Fleck made before Captain Marvel  (Mississippi Grind) actually starts out in Iowa. Though I think for budgetary reasons the entire film (except for insert shots) was shot in Louisiana. No news yet if Captain Marvel makes a stop in Iowa.

Mississippi Grind, starring Ben Mendelsohn and Ryan Reynolds, is one of the best acted films that people never saw. It had a limited release in 2015, but is hopefully finding its lost audience now that it’s on Netflix. But the $130,000 box take (less than Captain Marvel probably spent on orange juice for the crew) made Boden and Fleck question the future of their careers.

Here’s a lightly edited excerpt from an interview that Boden and Fleck did in 2016 on The Moment with Brian Koppelman podcast.

Brian Koppelman: I do sense from you a little discouragement on the state of independent film. I look at your career and I think they’ve been able to make all these movies exactly the way that they’ve wanted to. It’s incredible. It’s the kind of thing that later someone looks back and thinks they’re living a french new wave kind of existence. Of course, living it is hard. You’re making exactly  the movies you want to make with no creative compromises. Yet I can see your frustration—are you frustrated by it?

Anna Boden: I am frustrated by it, but I look back at all the movies that we’ve made and the experience of making them—it took a few years to make Mississippi Grind (our last film) and I was frustrated. I was going home to my husband every night as we were trying to get that movie off the ground [and] I was like I can’t do this—this is my least favorite part of filmmaking. And I was complaining to all my friends about it—maybe I should open a B&B in Hudson Valley. And then we got down to New Orleans and started prep and I felt so happy. I felt so exactly where I wanted to be, doing exactly what I wanted to be doing. So confident in what we were doing and the people we’d chosen to work with. And in those moments that it’s worth it. But then you finish and then you spend a year releasing it, and then nine people see it. And then you have to start raising money for your next project. And it’s in those lulls that you start wondering, “Is it really worth it?”

In that lull between releasing Mississippi Grind and beginning to work on Captain Marvel, Boden and Fleck directed three episodes of Koppelman’s Showtime series Billions in 2016 and 2017.

Scott W. Smith

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Netflix released Steven Soderbergh‘s new movie High Flying Bird today and I actually watched it this morning before work. One of the remarkable things about the film is it was shot on an Apple iPhone 8, with the FiLMiC pro app and Moondog Labs lenses.

It’ll take me some time to process the film, but it’s a little bit Jerry MaguireHoop Dreams meets Moneyball North Dallas Forty. Add a dash of Willie Morris’ book The Courting of Marcus Dupree, the Ken Burns documentary Baseball and Spike Lee themes and the movie—to borrow Marvin Gaye’s enduring song— asks the question “What’s Going On?”

What’s going on in the NBA? What’s going on in professional sports?

It would appear that the movie, written by Tarell Alvin McCraney, aims at ruffling feathers. We’ll see how that plays out. It’ll be interesting to see if LeBron James and other current NBA stars comment on the movie. It may even be more interesting what college basketball stars take away from the film, and what college economics professors have to add to the discussion.

But for now, let’s stick with Soderbergh’s role as a disruptor in the film business. He had a healthy enough budget ($1.5 million-ish) to shoot with Arri or RED high-end cameras but chose the iPhone partly because of how fast he could shoot with it. High Flying Bird was shot in 13 days with Soderbergh operating camera and directing, and a first cut was finished on a laptop with Adobe Premiere just hours after shooting wrapped.

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I watched High Flying Bird on an iPhone and it looked great. I’m not sure what it looks like on larger screens, but my guess is most watching won’t notice. But imagine what will happen in the near future when mobile phones have larger sensors to improve the image even more?

And even though technical people who only focus some problems inherent to shooting on an iPhone, may be missing the disruptive message of the movie matching the Soderbergh’s choice to shoot with an iPhone.

Scott W. Smith





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If you haven’t seen the documentary Searching for Sugar Man yet check it out on Netflix this weekend. The 2012 film won the Oscar and the BAFTA for Best Documentary, and the Sundance Special Jury Prize and the Audience Award for best international documentary.  Among winning many other awards the film’s writer/director/editor Malik Bendjelloul also won Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Documentary from the DGA.

For whatever reason, I missed it when it first came out and had the benefit of not knowing (or remembering) the backstory on the film. It made for a great movie-watching experience. So if you haven’t seen it, don’t even watch the trailer below or read anything else about it—just experience it.

Scott W. Smith

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John Carpenter had only shot and scored two semi-obscure features when the executive producer Irwin Yablans came to him with a proposal: make a low-budget movie about babysitters being murdered. ‘It was a horrible idea,’ Mr. Carpenter said in a recent telephone interview. “But I wanted to make more movies, so I said, ‘Great!’ . . . My job, plain and simple, was to scare the audience. It didn’t need to be anything more than that. The movie was a thrill ride.”
‘Halloween’ at 40 by Bruce Fretts/NY Times

That little $300,000 film that John Carpenter wrote and directed was released in 1978 and is still being talked about today.

And one of the people talking about it is the Jamie Lee Curtis; “It’s the greatest experience I’ve ever had professionally. It gave me everything in my creative life.” And that includes a chance to star in the latest version of Halloween. 

Scott W. Smith

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‘First Man’ vs. ‘Free Solo’

“Nobody achieves anything great by being happy and cozy.”
Mountain climber Alex Honnold

The movies First Man and Free Solo really aren’t competing against each other, but there are similarities between the two. They are stories about accomplishing things that had never been done before.

First Man is about Neil Armstrong becoming the first person to ever walk on the moon, and Free Solo is about Alex Honnold becoming the first person to ever solo climb (meaning without ropes and safety equipment) El Capitan in Yosemite.

Both of the human achievements are magnificent. I think NASA’s engineers helping astronauts landing on the moon signaled a change in the history of what’s possible. It’s one of the top all-time great feats.  But as a film achievement, First Solo is the better film.


Well, before I suggest why let me preface it by saying that First Man director Damien Chazelle is brilliant. Whiplash earned all of its praise, and I thought La La Land deserved the best picture Oscar.

So what’s wrong with First Man? Why the steep dropoff in the box office after its first week? Well . . . it’s— perhaps the Vanity Fair headline said it most tactfully, “First Man is Technically Dazzling and Dramatically Dull.”

As interesting as Ryan Gosling is to look at, it’s hard to engage his melancholy stare for 2  hours and 18 minutes. They tried to internalize the external experience which I’m not sure is the movie audiences wanted to see.

Gosling as an actor may have captured Neil Armstrong well, it’s just not a character that plays well on screen. Armstrong isn’t what you particularly call an active protagonist. He’s more of a diligent protagonist. He’s an honorable Boy Scout in the purest sense. He’s efficient.  He’s stoic. A solid as a rock kind of guy. He went to the moon and then became a professor.

Perhaps it’s why there hasn’t been a Neil Armstrong-centered movie almost 50 years after his great achievement. Neil Armstrong seemed like the methodical engineer type that you want flying your plane, but not necessarily one you want driving your film.

It’s the same reason that there hasn’t been a great film made on the Wright Brothers. I enjoyed David McCullough’s book The Wright Brothers, but Orville and Wilber were good, solid, nose to the grindstone Midwestern men from Ohio with engineering minds who were single focused on being the first to achieve a sustained, manned flight of an airplane.

They are great inspirational figures, but no one has yet to figure out how to make them interesting film characters yet. Ohio born and raised Armstrong was from a small town just an hour north of Dayton, Ohio where the famed Wright Brothers did test flights of their Dayton flyer and appeared cut of the same mold as the Wright Brothers.

Go back and watch The Right Stuff (1983) and see how writer/director Philip Kaufman pulled us into the story with the Chuck Yeager character.  I don’t know how many times I’ve watched that opening sequence with Sam Sheperd (as Yeager) and Barbara Hersey— but that’s electrifying stuff.

Then Kaufman gets rid of Yeager as our protagonist and brings on the first generation of astronauts. A cast of dynamic characters played by Scott Glenn, Ed Harris, Fred Ward, and Dennis Quaid that matched the dynamics of the visuals showing the trials and failures of the early stages of the NASA space program.

Perhaps I just couldn’t get past comparing First Man to The Right Stuff (and From the Earth to the Moon and Apollo 13).  Perhaps it’s because The Right Stuff came out in an age before the Internet and moviegoers had a thousand other distractions. Maybe Hurricane Michael hitting Florida days before I saw First Man threw me off.  Perhaps—like The Right StuffFirst Man will age better with time. Or not.

“[T]hroughout the film’s 138 minutes, the message I kept receiving was probably not the one Chazelle intended: Neil Armstrong was just a regular guy.”
Christopher Hooton/ The Independent
“The First Man Problem: What to do when your film’s real-life hero is not that interesting?”

I’m sure First Man will be remembered at Oscar time, and I’ll watch it again after I recalibrate my mindset.

The documentary Free Solo directed by Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin and produced by National Geographic is a classic man vs. mountain story, but they give it a fresh wrapping complete with stunning drone footage as Honnold attempts to do something no one has ever done before.

The goal is clear, the stakes are high. The doc touches on what it means to mountain climb without ropes or safety gear and how there’s no room for mistakes. Several well-known climbers have died over the years.

Honnold has a little bit of Armstrong’s stoic and engineering mindset. But they are able to pull back veneer a little bit and gives us a glimpse of what makes him tick. It’s almost a character study. Honnold’s girlfriend, Sanni McCandless, brings a spark of life and perspective to the story that is often lacking in adventure stories.

Without McCandless, Free Solo would be like one of those surf films where another great surfer catches another great wave. In Jon Krakauer’s book Into Thin Air, the author himself a mountain climber, asks the question why he and others risk their lives to climb Mt. Everest.

I think Free Solo stepped into that philosophical, contemplative and transcendent realm naturally and hit emotional notes that I found missing in First Man.

P.S. I know First Man was based on the book by James R. Hanson but I really wished Chazelle had of chosen to give us something we’d never seen before—a film on Dr. Wernher Von Braun. The former member of the Nazi Party who eventually fled Germany and ended up in Huntsville, Alabama. Ten years before President Kennedy made that speech about landing on the moon by the end of the decade of the ’60s, Von Braun had stated that as a goal. Von Braun had been involved in the German Society for Space Travel since the 1920s and earned his doctorate in physics back in 1934. But if not showing the American flag planted on the moon’s surface was controversial in First Man, can you imagine the uproar if a filmmaker showed that one of America’s greatest achievements had roots in Hitler’s evil plan to rule the world?

But that’s the film someone needs to make. And any film that combined Dr. Wernher Von Braun and Alabama football coach Bear Bryant together in the deep south of the ’50s & ’60s could not be boring. As Tennessee Williams once said, “I set out to tell the truth. And sometimes the truth is shocking.”

Someone forward this New York Times article to Steven Spielberg— When the Germans, and Rockets, Came to Town. What makes a story like this so timely is just today NPR did a report on what’s known as “hypersonic weapons” that puts missiles on the edge of space and will change the arms race between the USA, Russia, and China. All rooted back to the work the Germans did with the development of the V-2 rocket during World War II.

Scott W. Smith

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