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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.

Why?

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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“I was Number One at the box office five years in a row, which I don’t think anybody has done since. In 1978, I had four movies at once playing nationwide. If I met you then, I’m sorry.”
Actor/director Burt Reynolds (reflecting on his unchecked ego)

It wasn’t a fair fight. Star Wars vs. Smokey & the Bandit that is.

When both of those movies opened during the same week in May 1977, who do you think won coming out of the gate?

The one featuring a cocky driver in a black Trans Am or the one featuring a cocky pilot flying an X-Wing Starfighter?

Keep in mind that Burt Reynolds was the biggest box office star throughout the late ’70s, that legendary comedian and actor Jackie Gleason was Smokey (the cop), and co-star Sally Field was well-known for her Tv show The Flying Nun. That Star Wars movie had a bunch of then-unknown actors in a space genre that not many people believed in. (Granted in time, Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Princess Leia, Darth Vader would become bigger than any superlative I can come up with.)

Smokey & the Bandit wonat least that opening week. And according to Burt Reynolds in his book  But Enough About Me. Other sources back that up, others say it was a tie, and one I found even said Star Wars edged out Smokey. (Box office data appears to be spotty from more than 40 years ago.) It was close either way.

But even if the numbers $1.6  million (Smokey) vs. $1.5 million (Star Wars) were the final numbers, Smokey may have won the first round, but it definitely lost the fight. Star Wars finished the year number one ($460 million) and Smokey second or third ($126 million) depending on how counts the revenue for Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Then the Star Wars franchise went on to crush everyone in movie history.  (I don’t count the Marvel universe as one franchise film.)

And, as the saying goes, a number without a reference is meaningless. Star Wars had a limited release in its first week opening in only 43 theaters. Smokey opened in 726 theaters. So even if Smokey did win the box office that first week, Star Wars was killing it in per theater. But, according to IMDB,  Smokey did finish in the top ten of all movies in the 1970s.

Oddly, one of the fans of the movie was the director Alfred Hitchcock. His daughter says it was one of his favorite films in the years before he died, and that he watched it repeatedly.

When I heard that Burt Reynolds died yesterday a zillion thoughts went through my mind. One was I don’t know that there would be this blog without Burt Reynolds. I was 16-years-old when Smokey and the Bandit hit the theaters.  My three biggest interests then were sports, girls, and cars. The fact that I’m talking about Reynolds in the same breath as Star Wars is amazing when you consider he was essentially a jock from a small town in Florida who only became interested in theater when a drama teacher at Palm Beach Junior College encouraged Reynolds to audition for a school play.  Within two years he was in a play on Broadway. (A reminder of the power of one person to give others a sense of direction in life.)

While I was in high school I knew that Burt Reynolds was once a star football player in high school, briefly played football at Florida State University, and then found fame and fortune as a Hollywood actor. For a kid growing up in central Florida, he made that path seem possible.

I was a good enough football player in high school to earn All-Conference honors my senior year, and then walk-on to the University of Miami football team. UM is where I first studied film history and made my first 8mm and 16mm films in the film school there. (Emmy winning Game of Thrones director David Nutter was the Jim Kelly of the film program while I was there.) It’s also where I dislocated my shoulder in practice, got operated on, and walked off.  (Having only dressed for one JV football game—I think I had the shortest football career of any Hurricane player ever.)  Then I set off to finish film school in Los Angeles the next year.

Fame or fortune did not follow, but in tracking Reynolds’ career (and others like him) over the years I realized that path has its own pitfalls. But I’ve had the opportunity to work in production my entire creative career, so I’m thankful to Reynolds for giving me hope and planting that dream.

And that’s the part of the unlikely roots of this blog. Mix in Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville album also coming out in 1977, getting my driver’s license that year—then a few months later scoring three touchdowns in a game, seeing the swagger and laugh of Burt Reynolds on the big screen, and you had one optimistic young fellow.

Hold on to sixteen as long as can
Changes come along real soon
Make us women and men
Jack & Diane/ John Mellencamp

I once produced a video for someone who was fond of saying, “The one thing I’ve learned is every day the world rolls over on top of someone who was just sitting on top of it yesterday.” Burt Reynolds knew what it was like to be at the top and then have the world roll over on top him—then have it back up and roll over him again.  As he reached his 80s, he said his final role was “survivor.”

Fifty years from now, when people think back to the coolest actors of the ’70s I’m sure Burt Reynolds (and specifically his performance in Deliverance) will be on the shortlist. (All the bad choices he made in life and in roles will be forgotten. In time, ideally, artists are judged on only their best work.)

I flipped through his autobiography last night and found a few odd connections that show what a small world it is. Reynolds briefly studied at the Actors Studio in New York. One of the acting teachers I had in L.A. was Tracey Roberts who also studied at the Actor’s Studio so I wonder if she ever worked with Reynolds. Turns out they were both in a movie called Sam Whisky (1969).

One of the writers on Smokey and the Bandit was Charles Shyer, and one of my professors in film school was Bruce Block who’s worked as a producer on a few films with Shyer, including Father of the Bride I & II. (Two great resources by Block are his book The Visual Story, and his DVD commentary on the collector’s edition of Billy Wilder’s The Apartment.)

One of the players I played high school football with (Billy Giovanetti) and the starting wide receiver when I was at Miami (Larry Brodsky) both played for the short-lived USFL pro-football team the Tampa Bay Bandits which Reynolds was a part owner.

Reynolds continued working as an actor and director over his lifetime and was involved with his own theater in Jupiter, Florida. His various personal, financial, and physical struggles were well documented in the press, but when I think of Reynolds I remember how he entertained me in movies like Gator, Semi-Tough, White Lighting, and The Longest Yard.

One last little bit of Burt Reynolds trivia is Oscar-winning writer/director Quentin Tarantino was named after Renyold’s Gunsmoke character Quint. Tarantino was born the same year I was so I imagine he also enjoyed Reynolds and his ’70s films when he was a teenager.

If Quentin Tarantino hadn’t become “Quentin Tarantino,” I’m not sure what he’d be doing for a living since video stores faded away—but he’d probably have a movie blog and write a post about Burt Reynolds the day after he died

P.S. I’m grateful for a teacher in school who had us read Irwin Shaw’s classic short story, The Eighty-Yard Run. It made you want to make sure you had a life once the glory days passed you buy.  A few years later I saw the documentary Hoop Dreams about a pair of Chicago basketball phenoms starting in eighth grade and follows their dream until they get to college. It should be required viewing for every high school athlete.

Since 2009, ESPN’s  30 for 30 series of sports-centered documentaries have done a great job of showing how athletics intersects with life outside of the games themselves. Three of them have featured the University of Miami football team—The U ,The U Part 2, and Catholics vs. Convicts. 

And if ESPN wanted to do a fourth documentary on UM football they could. There are so many storylines to explore. There’s former QB Jim Kelly and his struggles with cancer, and there’s former QB Mark Richt’s long journey from Hurricane QB to current head coach. The struggles and triumphs of life. It was sad when I learned of the passing of two great players who were at Miami when I was there who also briefly played in the NFL. Rocky Belk was a prime target for Jim Kelly’s passes and died after an illness at age 50,  and Stanely Shakespeare who died in a boating accident when he was 42. I always thought Stanley Shakespeare was the coolest name of anyone who ever put on a football uniform.  He was also starting wide receiver on the 1983 team that won Miami’s first National Championship. And in the final odd connection in this post, both Stanley Shakespeare and Burt Reynolds died in Jupiter, Florida.

Scott W. Smith

 

 

 

 

 

 

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“David Lynch’s The Elephant Man is the one Lynch film that found a mesmerizing middle ground between conventional Hollywood story structure and its director’s surreal dreamscapes. Yet today it seems on the verge of being forgotten, and that’s a shame.”
Kyle Smith, National Review

The Elephant Man is currently available on Amazon Prime and I had forgotten what an extraordinary film it is. The direction (David Lynch), the acting (John Hurt, Anthony Hopkins, Anne Bancroft, John Gielgud), the make-up (Christopher Tucker), the black & white cinematography (Freddie Francis), and the screenwriting (Christopher De Vore, Eric Bergren, Lynch) are brilliant.

It was nominated for eight Oscars and the winner of BAFTA Best Picture in 1981. I saw the film in theaters when I was a teenager and it definitely peaked my early interest in what films could be.

Rewatching the movie makes me want to go read the original source material on the life of John Merrick; The Elephant Man and Other Reminiscences by Sir Frederick Treves and The Elephant Man: A Study in Human Dignity by Ashley Montagu.

And here’s a super article that fills in more about the movie.

P.S. The Elephant Man opened in theaters in October 1980 and that was a great time to be a teenager newly interested in movies. This was the pre-internet days and VHS or cable TV hadn’t come into my world yet. My movie tastes were evolving so I went to see everything I could. Here’s an eclectic—and partial— sample of what I saw in theaters in 1980:

The Shining 
Caddyshack
Raging Bull
Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back
The Blues Brothers 
Airplane!
The Fog
Urban Cowboy (worth watching just to see Scott Glenn eat the worm)
Stir Crazy (Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor)
Coal Miners Daughter 
My Body Guard 
Private Benjamin 
Used Cars
The Gods Must be Crazy
Brubaker
The Blue Lagoon
Melvin and Howard
Atlantic City
Ordinary People (Oscars: Best Picture, screenplay, direction, supporting actor) 

Then there’s a list of 1980s films I didn’t catch until later Breaker MorantAltered States, Stardust Memories, and Alligator (early John Sayles screenplay). A couple that slipped by me I need to check out: Kurosawa’s Kagemusha and Jim Jarmusch’s Permanent Vacation. And some interesting titles I never saw and probably never will; Cannibal Apocalypse, Fists of the White Lotus, Eaten Alive!, Blood Beach.

Cheers to the class of 1980. Lots of talent on display that year.

Related post:

Legacy Filmmaking (and Your Bank Account): “They’re never going to talk about your bank account when you’re dead, but they will talk about maybe the movies you left behind if you really cared about what you did.”—Frank Darabont

Scott W. Smith

 

 

 

 

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