“Dog Days” – A Pilgrim’s Progress

dog-days-title-montageDog Days is a six-part comic web series on YouTube that follows the misadventures of a fledgling dog walker named Max Miller. It was created and written by Sam Rubinoff, a stand-up comedian for five years and a dog walker himself. He also plays Max. Sam  started his own dog-walking business four years ago because he needed a day job that wouldn’t require him to get up too early, since he’s out late most nights performing in comedy clubs. Out of that grew the idea that became Dog Days.

(At this point I should probably mention that Sam is my nephew, the son of my wife’s sister. We’ve known each other for fourteen years now. I’ve been wanting to write about the series since it debuted last November, but concerns about conflict of interest and objectivity, as well as my chronic procrastination, always got in the way. That said, I’ll be as straight as I can here.)

At the beginning of Dog Days, Max, a young lawyer, is working in a law office sharing a cramped cubicle with his sex-obsessed friend, Steve (Michael Blaustein, a James Franco look-alike). A humiliating encounter — the first of many — with an abusive boss (Aaron Berg, frighteningly intense) ends with Max quitting his job in flamboyant crash-and-burn fashion. After storming out of the office, a chance encounter with a dog walker inspires Max to make dog walking his new career.

Each episode is between four to seven minutes long. The entire series runs approximately thirty-five minutes, with Max bouncing from one dog to the next with varying degrees of failure. A rather hapless character, Max emerges slightly dazed from most encounters. But, like Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Woody Allen, and others in this tradition, he keeps plugging away in the face of adversity (and absurdity). Max also reminds me of Griffin Dunne’s character in Martin Scorsese’s 1985 feature, After Hourswho struggles to survive an increasingly surreal night in Soho. Nothing that happens to Max is as threatening as that, but along the way he has to deal with the challenge of walking a dead dog (episode 3 – “Lucy”), owned by a somewhat demented lady named Edna (Marilyn Seide), who thinks Dick Nixon is president and that Ed Sullivan is still on television. Then there’s Morgan (played by the wonderfully named Boomer Tibbs). Morgan is a Nazi lover with a TV tuned to the Hitler Channel who hires Max to make sure his dog, the appropriately-named Hunter, doesn’t pee on Morgan’s Persian rug (episode 6). And then there’s Vlad (H. Foley), the boisterous Russian who attaches himself to Max in the first episode and becomes his biggest supporter. I was initially put off by Vlad, but he has a good heart and I liked him a lot by the end.

Not everything in Dog Days works, but most of it does. I’ve watched the series a number of times, and my only real reservation is the character Patricia, played by Jo Young (episode 2 – “Kevin”). She’s exaggerated and over-the-top, which is a bit jarring compared to everyone else. But overall Dog Days is funny and clever. It’s easy to relate to Max’s dumbfounded reactions to the farcical situations he finds himself in. He’s the normal one, relatively speaking.

Sam took the first draft of his Dog Days script to Evan Levine, a friend who helped trim it down and punch it up. Most of the actors are people Sam knows from the stand-up comedy world in New York. He found Boomer Tibbs and Marilyn Seide online through Actors Access. Cameraman Jeff Carton shot the series on a Canon 6D Digital SLR. Sam and Jeff created the shot lists. H. Foley (who plays Vlad) directed five episodes; Evan Levine directed one. All six episode were shot before editing began. Sam admits this was a “little crazy.” He did a rough cut of his own before sending it off to Dan Hirshon to edit. Sam says about Dan, “…it helped that he used to be a stand-up comedian, so he has great timing and helped me create funny moments that I didn’t even think about when I was writing the script.” The shoot was nine days over two months, with an additional half-day for pickups.

What fascinates me is that Dog Days can exist at all. When I was in film school in the 60s, you needed a lot of stuff to make a film: expensive cameras and other equipment, film stock, lab processing and prints, projectors, etc. And in the end all you had was a 16mm student film. With digital technology it’s much easier to make films, and the Internet makes it possible for those films to be widely seen. Of course, you still need a script, actors, luck, and talent, but now anyone crazy enough to try has a shot. The feature film Tangerine (2015) was shot with three iPhone 5S smartphones. It received great reviews and 22 awards from 33 nominations. When films can be shot with smartphones and digital cameras, the landscape has definitely changed.

Dog Days is an impressive achievement by a first-time filmmaker and a lot of fun. Here it is. The trailer is followed by the six episodes. – Ted Hicks


After Hours and Tangerine can be streamed from Amazon.

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“Hell or High Water” – The Real Deal

Hell or High Water is one of the best films of the year so far. I’ve seen it twice in one week, drawn back by the excellence of the filmmaking, writing, and performances — the whole package. I anticipated the pleasure of seeing it again and was not disappointed. I don’t think there’s a false moment in the film; it feels just about perfect.

Hell or High Water-posterSet on the sun-burnt plains of West Texas, Hell or High Water, directed by David Mackenzie, is a modern-day Western that tells the story of two brothers who rob banks and the two Texas rangers on their trail. The brothers need to raise enough money to pay off the mortgage on their late mother’s ranch before the bank can foreclose. Oil has been found on the property, so there’s a lot more at stake than just losing the family home. Banks and the economy are the villains here; we see signs of hard times everywhere. This is a world of foreclosures and bad debt, which has echoes of Margin Call (2011), 99 Homes (2014), The Big Short (2015). It also calls to mind Bonnie and Clyde (1967).

As I mentioned above, much of the strength of this film comes from the writing and especially the performances. Hell or High Water was written by Taylor Sheridan, who wrote Sicario (2015), a killer of a film. I did a blog post about Sicario last year, which can be accessed here.

Hell or High Water-brothers2The younger brother, Toby Tanner, is played by Chris Pine. He’s a revelation here for those who know him from roles such as the new Captain Kirk in the rebooted Star Trek films, Jack Ryan in Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014), or as Cinderella’s Prince in Into the Woods (2014). Pine is an appealing, likable actor. He was fine in those films, but he’s doing something here that feels very real. Toby is weathered, beaten down, weary, vulnerable, and tough. He’s divorced, with two sons who live with their mother. As Toby says later in the film, he’s been poor all his life, and his parents and their parents before them. He wants to make sure the cycle of generational poverty is not passed down to his boys. Ben Foster plays Toby’s older brother Tanner with the committed intensity he’s brought to performances in films such as Hostage (2005), The Messenger (2009), the remake of 3:10 to Yuma (2007), and on HBO’s Six Feet Under (2003-2005). Tanner, an ex-con, is short-fused, impulsive, and loyal. It’s the level-headed Toby who comes up with the desperate plan to hit a series of small banks, and Tanner who makes it happen. For Toby it’s about justice; for Tanner it’s about the rush.

Hell or High Water-RangersOn the other side are Texas Rangers Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and his partner, Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham). I think everybody loves Jeff Bridges. He’s a national treasure with an awesome acting career that includes his iconic role as the Dude in The Big Lebowski (1998), Crazy Heart (2009), Starman (1984), Cutter’s Way (1981), Hearts of the West (1975), and Fat City (1972), to name but a few. It’s a long list. Bridges brings a lived-in authenticity to his character here. In fact, it doesn’t feel like he’s acting; it’s more natural than that. That holds true for all the performances in this film. Authentic, natural, and real are words that keep coming to mind when I think about Hell or High Water. The relationship between Marcus and his partner is like that of an old married couple, or old friends continually trading genial insults. Gil Birmingham plays Alberto, a Native American. The actor looked familiar to me. I couldn’t place him at first, but then discovered he has a recurring role on the Netflix series, Unbreakable Kimmie Schmidt, and was also on the second season of House of Cards. The two actors are very relaxed with each other and have great rapport. Marcus is also reminiscent of the Tommy Lee Jones character in No Country for Old Men (2007). Speaking of which, Hell or High Water might seem like Cormac McCarthy territory, though its worldview is not quite as merciless.

There’s something sad and mournful about these people and their situations that reminds me at times of moments in Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973). The score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis reinforces this feeling.

Hell or High Water-Rangers sittingHell or High Water-brothers on porchHell or High Water is relaxed and laid-back, until it’s not. It’s easy-going, like a Joe Ely song. A lot of time is spent on porches, usually with the sun coming up or going down, and people just talking (or not). When it comes, violence is hard, sudden, and real. There’s a sequence that comments on American gun culture during a bank robbery. The bank is more crowded than Toby and Tanner expected, and they get more than they’d bargained for. Thanks to conceal-carry permits, a lot of people have guns and don’t hesitate to use them. Toby and Tanner barely get away with seemingly half the town blasting at them in the parking lot. It’s a pretty funny moment.

If you haven’t already seen Hell or High Water, I strongly recommend that you do. It’s solid and satisfying. You won’t be disappointed. — Ted Hicks



Variety review by Owen Glieberman

New York Times review by Jeanette Catsoulis

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From Kubrick to Murnau – Notes on Four Great Films

Film Forum, here in New York, is currently showing a series called “Return of the Double Feature,” which offers two features for the price of a single admission. This series runs through September 13th. Each pair of films is linked by director, actor, or genre (here’s the schedule). On Monday of last week, there were two double-feature programs, Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory and The Killing, followed by F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise and Nosferatu. Though I’d seen these films before, the idea of seeing all four of them together appealed to my sense of overkill. Also, I liked the prospect of being able to say I’d done such a thing, for what that’s worth. In retrospect, it was probably too much to properly process in one day — like eating four rich meals one after the other — but they’re great films and I couldn’t pass this up.

I saw the films in the following order, so that’s how I’m writing about them.

Paths of Glory-poster6Paths of Glory (1957)  I’ve seen this film many times and it always works. No studio had wanted to finance a film version of Humphrey Cobb’s 1935 novel about French soldiers chosen at random for execution after a failed attack in World War I. Stanley Kubrick had previously read the novel and wanted to film it as his follow-up to The Killing. Kirk Douglas became interested after he read a script written by Kubrick and Calder Willingham (Jim Thompson also contributed to the screenplay). The lead role of Colonel Dax was perfect for Douglas, the kind of tough, uncompromising character he’d played and would continue to play throughout his career. With Douglas on board, United Artists was willing to make the film.

Some have found Kubrick’s films cold and clinical, but I’ve never been bothered by this, to the extent that it is true. Though I have to admit, at times it seems like he’s an alien intelligence observing events in a laboratory. Kubrick was an avid chess player, and he brings those skills and strategies to his filmmaking. Much of Paths of Glory was filmed in the Schleissheim Palace, an opulent chateau near Munich in Bavaria. In contrast to the muddy chaos of the trenches at the front lines, these scenes, shot in cavernous, mathematically precise spaces, display a formal rigor and control that foreshadows Kubrick’s brilliant Barry Lyndon (1975). The following image of the court-martial gives a sense of this. Note the space and light, the deep focus and the composition of the soldiers. Douglas is seated in the foreground at the right.

Paths of Glory-courtroomThe following clips are excellent examples of Kubrick’s use of tracking shots. First we see General Mireau (George Macready) on a tour of the trenches with Richard Anderson as his aide-de-camp. This is followed by Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas) walking purposefully through the trench in the moments prior to a hopeless infantry assault on an impregnable objective. The camera is always moving, and this continues with lateral tracking from the beginning to the end of the attack.

An interesting aspect of Paths of Glory is that these are French soldiers with French names, all of whom are played by American actors speaking English dialogue in their normal speaking voice . There are no attempts at French accents, which is probably for the best — though it can be a bit jarring when you have someone like Emile Meyer as a French priest speaking like a dock worker. The foot soldiers in the infantry are blue collar working class, so it’s appropriate that they sound like guys from Queens or Brooklyn. Martin Scorsese used a similar strategy for Jesus’ disciples in The Last Temptation of Christ (1988).

The three soldiers chosen by lot to be executed as examples after the failed attack are played by Ralph Meeker, Joe Turkel, and the wonderfully eccentric Timothy Carey. Turkel and Carey were both in Kubrick’s previous film, The Killing. Carey has a great scene with Turkel that takes place the night before they’re due to be executed. Turkel points to a cockroach crawling on the table and bitterly says that in the morning he’ll be dead and that cockroach will still be alive. Cut to a close-up of Carey’s face as he smashes his hand down on the roach and says, “Now you’ve got the edge.”

Paths of Glory’s running time is just 88 minutes, but it covers a lot of ground. Kubrick was ruthlessly efficient in the editing. For example, when General Broulard (Adolph Menjou) says that a general court martial will be convened at 3 o’clock that afternoon, Kubrick cuts directly to that event. There’s no fat in this film. It gets right to the point.

The following trailer makes Paths of Glory seem like more like an action-packed war movie than it actually is. For me, the focus of the film is on bureaucratic army officers who use the soldiers as cannon fodder to achieve their own success and advancement. The efforts of Kirk Douglas’ Colonel Dax, a top criminal lawyer in civilian life, to buck the system and prevent the execution are at the heart of things. Dax is Paths of Glory‘s moral center, and Douglas brings his full intensity and gritted teeth to express outrage, contempt, and sadness at the lack of reason and compassion on display.


Killing-lobby cardThe Killing (1956)  I wrote about this film three years ago. You can access that post here. The following trailer doesn’t make The Killing seem much different from other crime films of the time, but it certainly was. I never tire of seeing it.


Sunrise-poster4 Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927)  This is widely considered to be one of the greatest films ever made, and I definitely agree. I’m not sure exactly what makes Sunrise great, I just know it is. I tend to respond to films first and foremost on an emotional level, without necessarily understanding why I’ve been affected the way I have. I’ve been thinking about Sunrise a lot since seeing it sandwiched in the midst of my quadruple-feature binge last week. In an effort to sort this out, I’ve been reading Lucy Fischer’s excellent BFI Film Classics monograph, Sunrise – A Song of Two Humans (1998), and Dudley Andrew’s chapter on Sunrise in his book Film and the Aura of Art (1984), both of which help to reveal and clarify the many layers of this extraordinary film. Seeing Sunrise again last night (via Amazon streaming) reinforced my feelings about the film.

Sunrise was the first film F. W. Murnau made in this country, after emigrating from Germany in 1926. He had virtually total control over the making of Sunrise and basically created the landscape of the film from the ground up. The scenes in the City are rather amazing.

An opening title reads, “This song of the Man and his Wife is of no place and every place; you might hear it anywhere at any time.” The next title screen reads, “For wherever the sun rises and sets… in the city’s turmoil or under the open sky on the farm life is much the same; sometimes bitter, sometimes sweet.” The characters have no names; they are referred to as “the Man,” “the Wife,” and “the Woman from the City.” The village where the Man and his Wife have their farm seems European, with houses out of a fairy tale. Across a large lake is the “City,” modern and fast-paced, noisy and sophisticated, with honking cars driving every which way. We’re in two different worlds; it feels like a fable. There’s something elemental about Sunrise that’s difficult to quantify.









Sunrise tells a seemingly slight story that has great depth, much like Ozu’s Tokyo Story (1953). In both, descriptions of what happens don’t sound like much. The plot of Sunrise is the stuff of melodrama or film noir. The Man (George O’Brien) is tempted by the Woman from the City (Margaret Livingston) to sell his farm and go with her back to the City, but he’ll have to get rid of his Wife (Janet Gaynor) first. The Woman urges him to drown the Wife in the lake and make it look like an accident. Tortured and conflicted, the Man agrees, but has a crisis of conscience at the last minute. As soon as they reach the far shore of the lake, the Wife, realizing he meant to kill her, runs from him in terror. The Man follows her onto a trolley that somehow has a route through the woods into the City. Once there he slowly regains his wife’s trust. The feeling that passes between them is profoundly powerful.

Sunrise-boarding tram carThroughout the film, the music score by Hugo Risenfeld contributes greatly to the overall effect. I mentioned Ozu earlier, and at times the feel of the score reminded me of music in Ozu’s films. It contains a depth of feeling. Ostensibly a silent film, Sunrise has a synchronized music and effects track. Released several weeks before The Jazz Singer, it’s a link between silent and sound films.

That’s not all, but I won’t describe any more of what happens — or rather, how it happens, because I don’t think I can do it justice.

Here are some random notes:

When the Woman from the City is talking to the Man about killing the Wife, the dialogue title reads, “Couldn’t she get drowned?” As this title holds on the screen, the words begin to drip down the screen. You can see this in the second trailer below.

In many scenes, interior spaces are askew; i.e. tilted floors, oversized doors, and strange perspectives.

George O’Brien appeared mostly in Westerns before and after Sunrise. He was in John Ford’s The Iron Horse (1924), and his last film was Ford’s Cheyenne Autumn (1964).

The very first Academy Awards ceremony took place on May 16, 1929, and honored the best films of 1927 and ’28. Sunrise received three awards: Janet Gaynor for best actress, Charles Rosher and Karl Struss for cinematography, and the award for “Unique and Artistic Picture” to the film itself. This was the first and last time this award was given. Wings received the Best Picture award that year.

I was interested to learn that Edgar G. Ulmer was an Assistant Art Director on Sunrise. Ulmer went on make three of my favorite films: The Black Cat (1934), Detour (1945) and The Man from Planet X (1951).

Murnau died young at age 42 in 1931. He’d made four films since coming to Hollywood. A week before the opening of his final film, Tabu, Murnau was riding up the coast from Los Angeles in a hired Rolls Royce driven by a 14-year-old Filipino servant. There was a crash. Murnau hit his head and died the next day in Santa Barbara. There has to be more to that story. A trivial detail about Murnau that caught my attention is that he was reportedly 6 feet 11 inches tall. That’s taller than John Wayne.

Here are two trailers. I think they’re both worth seeing.


Nosferatu-poster3Nosferatu (1922)  What may be Murnau’s most famous film is an unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula (1897). Stoker’s widow Florence successfully sued and got a court ruling ordering all prints of the film to be destroyed. Thankfully, a few survived, and here we are today. Nosferatu is best known for its depiction of the Dracula character, here called Count Orlok. This vampire is definitely not Bela Lugosi in cape and evening dress, or Christopher Lee. Orlok is something entirely Other; a praying mantis, a rat crawling out of the grave. His appearance becomes more distorted as the film progresses, the hands more claw-like, the ears more pointed. I find my attention flagging whenever Orlok is not on screen. He’s definitely the main attraction.

An bonus to this particular screening was hearing Steve Sterner provide live piano accompaniment. I first heard Steve at the old Thalia Theater. He’s written music for over 300 silent films, and has been affiliated with Film Forum for at least 25 years.

Here’s a scene on board the ship Orlok is on with his coffin and several boxes of earth. Crew members have been disappearing one by one during the voyage. The first mate goes below to check things out. Not a good idea.

Orlok emerges from the hold of the ship. Note the rat on his left arm. Nice detail.

Nosferatu-up from the hold__________________________________________________________

Nosferatu has had a long life. It’s undead, so to speak. Werner Herzog’s remake, Nosferatu the Vampyre, was released in 1979. Klaus Kinski was suitably freakish as Count Dracula, with Isabelle Adjani as Lucy Harker and Bruno Ganz as Jonathan Harker. By then, Dracula was a public domain title, so character names from the novel could be used. Herzog considered Murnau’s original to be the greatest ever to come out of Germany. In 2000, E. Elias Merhige directed Shadow of the Vampire, which depicts the making of Nosferatu, with John Malkovich as Murnau and Willem Dafoe as Max Schrek, who happens to be a real vampire in this fanciful imagining. These are just two examples of Nosferatu‘s reach.

Nosferatu-Herzog posterShadow of the Vampire-poster2











With the exceptions of The Iron Horse (1924), Wings (1927), and Shadow of the Vampire (2000), all of the films referenced in this post are available for streaming from Amazon. — Ted Hicks                                                                      

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“Be curious. Stand up. Keep your eyes open. Don’t blink.” – Robert Frank

What a terrific year this has been so far for documentaries. I just saw another great one, Don’t Blink – Robert Frank, directed by Laura Israel. I wish I had time to write a more finished piece, but we’re leaving tomorrow for a week in Montreal and I want to post this before we go. Basically, I loved it! Anything that opens with The Mekons’ “Memphis Egypt” powering through the opening title montage has got me right off the bat. Here it is. You’ll see what I mean (though the clip ends a bit abruptly).

Laura Israel has helped edit Frank’s own films for the last twenty years. I’d always thought of Robert Frank as a still photographer, and was surprised to learn from Don’t Blink that he’s been making films for years. By the time The Americans was published in the United States in 1959, Frank had already made his first short film, Pull My Daisy. I was aware of only this film, along with Me and My Brother (1969) and the notorious Cocksucker Blues (1972), Frank’s documentary about the Rolling Stones which has never been officially released. Co-directed with Alfred Leslie, Pull My Daisy was written and narrated by Jack Kerouac (who also wrote the introduction to The Americans), and featured Allan Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Larry Rivers, and other Beat Generation figures. This reflects Frank’s continued involvement with poets and writers of the period. In Don’t Blink, he says he’s interested in “marginal people who live on the edge.” We see this in his films and in many of the photographs in The Americans,  as well as in the way he’s lived his life. Don’t Blink conveys this really well.

The Americans-coverFrank has made between twenty and thirty films (depending on which source you read), but he will be forever known — and justly so — for his monumental, hugely influential book of photographs, The Americans, published first in France in 1958 and in this country in 1959 . A Guggenheim Fellowship enabled Frank to drive across the United States in 1955, shooting what he saw in all levels of society along the way. Twenty-seven to twenty-eight thousand shots were edited down to the eighty-three that appear in The Americans. Here are five of them:

The Americans-flag over faceThe Americans-New Mexico hwy





The Americans-men's room shoeshine


The Americans-transvestites



The Americans-black nanny & white child






 I was quite energized by Don’t Blink – Robert Frank. The music selected by Hal Willner played a large part in my reaction. The film includes tracks by The Velvet Underground, Tom Waits, Bob Dylan, Charles Mingus, Patti Smith, and Johnny Thunders (“You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory” — great title). Here’s a complete listing of the song credits used in the film. What a hell of a soundtrack album this would make.

Don’t Blink was shot by Liza Renzler and Ed Lachman, both great cinematographers with a long list of credits. Renzler’s work includes Hitchcock/Truffaut (2015), Pollock (2000), and the awesome Steve Buscemi film Trees Lounge (1996). Lachman’s many titles include Carol (2015), Howl (2010), Far from Heaven (2002), Erin Brockovich (2000), and Desperately Seeking Susan (1985).

Robert Frank is a constant presence in Don’t Blink, which has a fragmented structure that reflects Frank’s approach to his own films. We see him in many archival clips — one in particular in which he clearly does not want to be interviewed and is giving the struggling filmmaker a very hard time. But he clearly likes Laura Israel, whom he’s known and worked with for many years. His present-day thoughts about his life and work have a warm, friendly quality. It’s interesting, though, that despite the iconic stature of his most famous work, The Americans, he seems to feel closer to his filmmaking. Frank says at one point that films, no matter how old, are always alive, while photographs are “just memories to put in a drawer.” But he has also said of his films, “Each is their own short moment. I forget about them. They were so much time in the moment. But it’s in the past and you can’t go back. Have to go forward. Deadly to go back.” The thing that comes out of all of this — and you really get it in Don’t Blink — is that he can’t stand still. Robert Frank is a true artist in his life and in his work.

Near the end of the film, Frank says, “Be curious. Stand up. Keep your eyes open. Don’t blink.” This is ostensibly advice to photographers and filmmakers, but I think it has a larger meaning. In addition to being a total gas, Don’t Blink is also deeply moving. — Ted Hicks

Don’t Blink – Robert Frank is playing at Film Forum here in New York through July 26.


Supplemental material

Director Laura Israel interviewed by the Film Society’s Kent Jones when Don’t Blink was shown at last year’s New York Festival.

“Road Show: The Journey of Robert Frank’s The Americansby Anthony Lane — September 14, 2009, The New Yorker

Here’s a discussion of The Americans hosted by Executive Director Deborah Klochko at the Museum of Photographic Arts in San Diego, California.

Don’t Blink – Robert Frank     press notes

Don’t Blink – Robert Frank    Grasshopper Films website (includes screening schedule for other cities)

Variety review of Don’t Blink – Robert Frank

“A Mesmerizing Marathon of Robert Frank’s Movies” by Nicholas Dawidoff — July 12, 2016, The New Yorker

I originally had a link here to Robert Frank’s first film, Pull My Daisy (1959), but it’s since been pulled from the YouTube site. The film is worth tracking down. Robert’s son Pablo appears in the film, along with French actress Delphine Seyrig, who would star in Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad two years later and many great films after that. Strange but true.

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Varieties of Human Experience: Recent Documentaries

In the last ten to twenty years, in addition to informing us in a journalistic sense, the best documentaries have been artistic expressions in their own right. The ones I’ve seen lately have been outstanding, uplifting, deeply moving, and extremely well made. Here they are:

Eva Hesse (Marcie Begleiter, director)  I’d never heard of Eva Hesse before seeing this film, but despite my ignorance, it turns out she’s an important figure in the art world. In the photographs and archival footage we see, she seems unassuming, smaller than life, yet she created amazing work. This film makes me want to know about her and her art.


Francofonia-poster3Francofonia (Alexander Sokurov, director)  Sokurov is probably best known in this country for Russian Ark (2002), a time-travelling wonder set in the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, famously shot in a single, 99-minute take. It’s amazing. But the first of his films I saw was Mother and Son (1997), a slow-moving but far from boring film comprised of long takes in which virtually nothing happens on screen, but it’s mesmerizing all the same. Francofonia isn’t easy to pin down; it’s a mix of fact and fiction, history and imagination, with the Nazi occupation of Paris during World War II and art works from the Louvre at the center. There’s something very moving about it that’s hard to describe.


The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble (Morgan Neville, director)  Neville has a strong resumé; his previous films include Best of Enemies (2015) and the Oscar-winning 20 Feet from Stardom (2013). The Music of Strangers is just wonderful. The music is rapturous and transporting. The musicians profiled in the film come off as genuinely solid, firmly grounded people. They include Kayhan Kalhor of Iran, Wu Man of China, the awesome Cristina Pato of Galicia in Spain, and Kinan Azmeh of Syria. As Wu Man says at one point, “There’s no East or West, it’s just a globe.” The Music of Strangers opens in New York and Los Angeles on June 10; nationwide in June/July.


Nothing Left Unsaid: Gloria Vanderbilt and Anderson Cooper (Liz Garbus, director)  Garbus has had a long, impressive career. Last year she gave us the extraordinary What Happened, Miss Simone?, and years before the equally strong The Farm: Inside Angola Prison (1997), both of which are available for streaming on Netflix. Nothing Left Unsaid (great title) is sharp, witty, and powerful. Gloria Vanderbilt, who I knew little about other than her name and her line of jeans, has had an amazing life. She was married to Leopold Stokowski (!) and Sidney Lumet (news to me). Her last husband, Wyatt Emory Cooper, who died in 1978, was Anderson’s father. Gloria is 92 and sharp as a tack. Her relationship with Anderson is beautiful to see. Besides being mother and son, they seem to be really good friends. My friend Judith Trojan wrote perceptively about the film on her blog, FrontRowCenter, when it was first shown on HBO this past April. You can read that here.


Presenting Princess Shaw (Ido Haar, director)  This film is a rush of positive energy. Samantha Montgomery, aka Princess Shaw, lives in New Orleans where she cares for the elderly at an assisted living facility during the day and posts her songs on YouTube at night. Ophir Kutiel, aka Kutiman, is a musician who lives in Israel and creates new compositions from musical clips he finds on YouTube. The film shows how he uses Princess Shaw’s music and the profound impact this has on her life when he releases it on the Internet. Presenting Princess Shaw is available for streaming on Amazon.

Director Ido Haar, Princess Shaw, Kutiman

Director Ido Haar, Princess Shaw, Kutiman


Unlocking the Cage-poster2Unlocking the Cage (Chris Hegedus & D.A. Pennebaker, directors)  We saw this at Film Forum last weekend. Hegedus, Pennebaker, and animal-rights lawyer Steven Wise, founder of the Nonhuman Rights Project, were there for a Q&A. Wise has been working for years to get chimpanzees legally recognized as persons. Per a description at Film Forum’s website, “It’s Wise’s unorthodox position that cognitively complex animals (e.g. chimpanzees, whales, dolphins, elephants) should be granted personhood rights that would protect them from abuse.” The film is extremely dramatic. It feels like it’s happening in the moment.

Hegedus-Pennebaker-WiseThree years ago I posted a piece on my blog about Pennebaker and Bob Dylan, which you can access here.


Weiner-poster2Weiner (Josh Kriegman & Elyse Steinberg, directors)  I suspect that Anthony Weiner now regrets giving Kriegman and Steinberg as much access as he did for the making of this film. I’ve read that Weiner still hasn’t seen it, which is too bad, because he might learn something about himself. Weiner is an extraordinary film, stunning at times. The tragedy of it is that if Weiner didn’t have a weird sex addiction — albeit one that doesn’t involve actual physical contact with another person — he could have been a strong politician, an impassioned guy fighting for the right causes. Throughout we see his wife, a mainly silent Huma Abedin, who does not look amused, standing by his side. It’s hard not to think of Alicia Florrick on The Good Wife. Seeing Weiner is like watching a trainwreck at times. He makes one bad decision after another, but just keeps plowing forward. In spite of everything, I find it hard not to like Anthony Weiner. I’m just glad I’m not him.


Witness-posterThe Witness (James Solomon, director)  After Kitty Genovese was murdered on a New York street in her neighborhood in 1964, the story by A. M. Rosenthal that appeared in the New York Times stated that thirty-eight residents had witnessed the multiple attacks on Kitty from their apartments and did nothing, despite her screams for help. This quickly became the accepted version, written in stone. Rosenthal, interviewed in the film, sticks by the story. Kitty Genovese became the symbol of urban apathy, specifically in New York City. This extraordinary film follows Kitty’s younger brother, Bill Genovese, in his efforts to learn more about who his sister was and what really happened that night, a quest that consumed him for years. What emerges is a major revision of the original story. Bill tracks down and interviews as many of the original witnesses as he can. He lost his legs in Vietnam, and if anything, this makes Bill seem that much more determined. The film plays out like a thriller of the highest order. Near the end, Bill hires a young actress to go on the street late one night where the original attack occurred and scream as Kitty did that night. This will have you clawing the armrests. The Witness is a gripping detective story. I think Bill Genovese is the true witness of the title.


From This Day Forward (Sharon Shattuck, director)  We saw this film last year at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in Durham, North Carolina. It was subsequently shown at eight film festivals in 2015 but I couldn’t understand why it didn’t get either a theatrical or television release, because its transgender subject matter couldn’t be more topical. So I was happy to learn that From This Day Forward will open at the IFC Center in New York and elsewhere on June 24. It will then air on the PBS series POV this October 10. I included From This Day Forward on my list of favorite documentaries for 2015. You can access that post here.


Lo and Behold-poster Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World (Werner Herzog, director)  The latest film from Werner Herzog is a fascinating look at the pervasive world of the Internet, from its beginnings to what it might become. Herzog brings the same sense of inquiry and wonder to Lo and Behold that he has to his previous films, which include Grizzly Man (2005) and Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010). While I love many of his narrative films, especially Aguirre, The Wrath of God (1972), I think overall his best work has been done in documentaries. Lo and Behold has its New York premiere at the BAM CinemaFest in Brooklyn on June 19, and opens in theaters and on demand on August 19. I plan to write more about it then.

Here is a clip of Werner Herzog and executive producer Jim McNiel interviewed by Steve Zeitchik of the Los Angeles Times at the Sundance Film Festival, where Lo and Behold had its world premiere in January . Herzog, an original thinker if there ever was one, is such a kick to listen to.


Finally, here’s a link to an IMDB listing of the top 100 documentaries from 2000 to 2014. I didn’t see Frederick Wiseman, D.A. Pennebaker, or Al Maysles on this list — major omissions — but these are excellent choices for the most part. It gives you an idea of how many terrific documentaries are out there. – Ted Hicks

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The Supercharged Art of Walter Molino

Last week a friend of mine in Minneapolis, Mark Ryan, sent me a series of illustrations by Walter Molino, an Italian comics artist and illustrator. I’d never heard of this guy, but was totally blown away by his work. I’ve been able to find only the briefest biographical information about him. Walter Molino was born in 1915 and died in 1997 at age 82. He began working professionally as an illustrator and caricaturist in 1935 for a newspaper and two children’s magazines, followed by a satirical magazine and several comic strip series. In 1941 Molino became the chief cover illustrator for La Domenica del Corriere, an Italian weekly newspaper. His work for this paper supplies most of the incredible scenes in this post. One can only imagine the stories behind these images. Almost all of them depict life and death situations. They’re like freeze frames in the midst of extreme action. And they move. His style is kinetic and electric, vivid and cinematic. You can feel the energy. Many depict women and children at risk, fires, explosions, and calamitous crashes. He seems to have a thing about falling, usually from great heights. Norman Rockwell he’s not. I haven’t found any indication that Molino ever did film posters, but if not, he should have.

Walter Molino-jumping from fireWalter Molno-child fallingWalter Molino-throwing guy down stairs







Walter Molino-between speeding trainsWalter Molino-catching falling womanWalter Molino-tossing baby from fire







Walter Molino-train hits car '58Walter Molino-race car hits crowd '57







Walter Molino-child on front bumper

Walter Molino-kids running from fire___________________________________________________________

Walter Molino-guy hit by speedboatWalter Molino-capsized lifeboat '59







Walter Molino-woman hanging out airplaneWalter Molino-jet hits train


And whatever the hell this is.

Walter Molino-exploding elephant '57_________________________________________________________

Okay, maybe he had some stuff to work out. In any event, this wasn’t his only subject matter. He occasionally took a break from mayhem and turned out works like the smoking satire below, and somewhat strangely, a portrait of JFK and Pope John XXIII from 1963 titled “The Peace Sowers.”

Walter Molino-smokingWalter Molino-Peace Sowers '63


You can find many more examples of Molino’s amazing work online. – Ted Hicks

Walter Molino

Walter Molino

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“Tale of Tales” Pt. 2 – Supplemental Material

This may be a deeper dive than anyone who hasn’t already seen Tale of Tales will want to take, but here it is for those who do. First is more information about the work of Giambattista Basile, author of the film’s source material. Following that is a statement by the director, Matteo Garrone, concerning the film’s intentions and aspects of production. Both of these are from the press notes for Tale of Tales.


Tale of Tales by Giambattista Basile

Tale of Tales-paperback coverIn Tale of Tales by Giambattista Basile, Italy possesses the oldest, richest, and most accomplished of popular fairytale books.

Basile, Count of Torrone (cir. 1570-1632) was an academic, courtier and soldier to various Italian princes, including the Doge of Venice. He drew inspiration from popular oral traditions in Crete, and especially Venice.

A seminal narrative monument, Basile’s work comprises 50 tales. The first tale acts as a framework in which a group of people tell each other 49 stories over five days. In delightful language, using a style that blends eroticism and violence, the elegant and the grotesque, codes of honour and bawdiness, the author depicts with consummate skill and extraordinary vigour an incredible gallery of moral portraits and social mores. Yet the sorcerers and ogres, kings and princesses, dragons and enchanted animals in these stories have a naturalistic appearance, and Basile moves them through an accessible world, at once rich and poverty-stricken, one that is very physical and visceral. The backdrop for the tales is the everyday life of fully-fleshed men and women, in which extraordinary elements; the magical, the monstrous or miraculous, burst in.

Whilst other works written after the Decameron were made up of stories that could be called fairytales, such as The Canterbury Tales by Chaucer, Tale of Tales is the first in which all the stories are fairytales. Moreover, Basile was the first writer to succeed in perfectly reproducing oral intonations. Tale of Tales inspired the Brothers Grimm two centuries later, for some of their most famous works including Cinderella, Puss in Boots, Donkeyskin, Sleeping Beauty and Hansel and Gretel. Through his taste for fantasy, Basile’s work, with its comic and sentimental aspects and frequent touches of horror, is several centuries ahead of authors like Hans Christian Andersen, J.R.R. Tolkien, or even the Harry Potter saga. But the Neapolitan dialect in which Basile’s tales were written explains why they remained virtually unknown to the wider world for some 200 years.

“This collection was for long the best and richest found in a nation. The author had a special talent for collecting them, and what’s more, an intimate knowledge of the dialect. The stories are told almost without a break, and the tone, at least in the Neapolitan tales, is captured to perfection. We can, then, regard this collection of 50 tales as the basis for many others.” -Wilhelm Grimm (1837)

“The Tale of Tales is the dream of a Neapolitan Shakespeare, obsessed with all that is gruesome, with an insatiable appetite for sorcerers and ogres, fascinated by convoluted and grotesque images, in which crudeness merges with the sublime.” -Italo Calvino


DIRECTOR’S NOTES by Matteo Garrone

The Choice of Basile –

 I chose to tackle the universe of Basile because in his tales, I found that they blend between the real and fantastic which has always characterized my artistic endeavors.

The stories recounted in The Tale of Tales cover all of life’s opposites: the ordinary and the extraordinary, the magical and the everyday, the regal and the obscene, the straightforward and the artificial, the sublime and the filthy, the terrible and the tender, scraps of mythology and torrents of popular wisdom. The tales recount human feelings pushed to the extreme.

The approach to the tales: the real and the fantastical –

From the first reading of the 50 tales which make up the book, me and my fellow screenwriters faced numerous choices in choosing the stories that we liked most and then making them credible, concrete, as if we were seeing them take place before our eyes. Our approach was to search for something powerful, physical, shared and authentic, even in the stories in which the imagination was the most fired-up. In Basile’s work, there’s a great pleasure in the narrative, and that should also be a prerogative of cinema.

My previous films have been based on true stories, which I transformed to the limits of an almost fantasy dimension. Here, we did the journey in the opposite direction. We were inspired by fabulous situations that were brought on to a realistic basis through a process of subtraction, so the spectator can at each moment feel involved in the story, and become immersed in the adventures of our characters.

Modernity of the tales –

This process of subtraction had no effect whatsoever on the themes and the fundamental sentiments in the book, which still show all their surprising modernity. We were the first to be amazed by this. The horror, for example, is all there in Basile’s work; we really didn’t add anything. At the end of a long selection process, once we had chosen and created the connections between the tales, we realized to our great surprise that we had followed an invisible but very strong thread that linked them. Actually, it involved three stories about women, each at a different age in life. But what struck us even more was the capacity of these tales to capture some contemporary obsessions: the powerful desire for youth and beauty (which Basile even describes in a hyper-realistic manner, offering a satire on today’s cosmetic surgery, four centuries ahead of his time), the obsession of a mother who would do anything to have a son, the conflict between the generations, and the violence that a girl must deal with to become adult.

The language of the film –

We chose English, beyond mere production reasons (given that it’s a film with an international cast), but because that language is the way to make The Tale of Tales, this book on which some of the most famous fairytales in the world are based, accessible to the widest possible audience. The imagination of these tales goes beyond any limit, and in that respect Basile is a universal author. What’s more, the use of English means you don’t immediately identify the landscapes which form the backdrop of our story, and that avoids fixing the characters in a particular dialectal tone.

Faithfulness and betrayal –

Using English was not the only “betrayal”; we took some other liberties. But the rest is in the very nature of the fairytale, which is continually translated and reinterpreted. We found so many versions of the same stories. You can never be faithful to a tale: each time you tell it to a child so they go off to sleep, something changes. What we absolutely didn’t want to betray, what we tried to keep intact, was the spirit, that evocative power of the Tales, which has fed the universal imagination through the centuries, influencing writers like Perrault and the Brothers Grimm. And the language in which we wanted to transpose it was above all the cinematographic language – a language which can have its own specific richness, like that which we find in Basile’s work. If there can be a fantastic version of Shakespeare’s Tempest rewritten in Neapolitan by Eduardo de Filippo, we thought perhaps there could be a Basile in English. And let’s not forget that anyone who reads Basile today, even in Italy, reads the dual version, with the original text opposite the translation. It would a great thing if the film made people curious and encouraged them to read the book.

The special effects –

Like all the artistic decisions, whether the cinematography sets or costumes, the special effects were designed to give the film as much verisimilitude as possible, to lend it physical and emotional credibility. In particular, the work on the special effects was characterized by a purely artisanal creative path. We physically tried to create the fantastical creatures like the dragon and the giant flea, and to keep the digital intervention solely for touch-ups. It’s a way of working that allowed the actors to perform in close contact with these fantastic creatures and to get fully inside the skin of the character during takes.

Painting and cinema –

From a visual point of view, some of the film’s major inspirations come from Los Caprichos, the series of engravings by Francisco Goya. His marvelous illustrations really capture the soul which bursts forth from Basile’s work, and the atmosphere of the film: they provide a representation of grotesque humanity, at once realistic and fantastic, spiced up with many comic and macabre elements. As far as cinema is concerned, among the key references, I’d cite Black Sunday by Mario Bava, Comencini’s Pinocchio, Fellini’s Casanova, and Brancaleone’s Army by Monicelli.

A fantasy book with some incursions into horror –

I would define The Tale of Tales as a fantasy book with some touches of horror. In an indirect yet palpable way, these two genres – fantasy and horror – come through and can already be felt in my previous work: in The Embalmer and in First Love, the horror notes can already be clearly heard; in Reality, the fairytale mood inspires the stories as much as the style; and even in Gomorrah, beyond the realism of the situations, the tone of some episodes is that of a genuine dark fable. When you think about it, The Embalmer – which also has some grotesque and poignant aspects – actually resemble one of Basile’s tales: “Once upon a time there was a dwarf who stuffed big animals and who fell in love with a beautiful young man.”

The filming locations –

Our aim was to seek out real places that could nonetheless look like they were recreated in the studio. As such, we discovered some genuine natural locations that turned out to be perfectly adapted to the multiple reconstructions presented in the film. These are buildings and panoramas which appear to be the fruit of the most fervent imagination, but which really exist, and bear within them the signs of the period and the weirdness of those who designed them, or else the unpredictable work of nature with its materials, rocks, water, and plants. Besides some wonderful chateaus, I’m thinking of the Alcantara gorge, the Vie Cave, and the Bosco del Sasseto, which looks like a pre Raphaelite set.

The costumes –

 Regarding the costumes, the film is inspired by the first Baroque period, when Basile wrote the book, but since this is not a film of historical reconstruction. We felt free to reinvent a fantasy world, while at the same time being careful not to appear “extravagant”. If we allowed ourselves some license, it’s because the Baroque is a varied and sumptuous style, which allows a lot of liberties and in itself sums up the previous periods, including the Gothic, the style with which the fairytale genre has always been associated.


Here are three variant posters that present the film in different ways.

Tale of Tales-poster2Tale of Tales-posterTale of Tales-Italian poster___________________________________________________

Finally, here is a press conference for Tale of Tales when it was shown at last year’s  Cannes Film Festival. It’s conducted mostly in French, with English translation in voice-over. The film received a divided response from critics there. This is understandable; it’s not for everyone. As instructor Richard Brown told a film class I was in years ago, sometimes you get on the ride and sometimes you don’t. If you’re willing to let Tale of Tales take you where it will, it can be quite a trip, believe me. – Ted Hicks


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