FROM SILENT TO STREAMING

EPISODE 1: THE WOMAN’S FILM (1971): A ‘Consciousness Raising Group” on Film

https://anchor.fm/brendan–lee/embed/episodes/THE-WOMANS-FILM-ete2dj

The 1960’s was a watershed moment in the world of filmmaking. The emergence

of “cinema-verite” style documentary coupled with the advancement in filmmaking

technology gave filmmakers more independence when it came to making films. Richard

Leacock and D.A. Pennebaker have become synonymous with this period but what most

people overlook is how this era and movement inspired and produced exceptional women filmmakers.

Due to widespread revolution against the Vietnam war many women in the United

States began turning to film as a way of voicing their anti-war message. With the advent

of new equipment it was much easier for any filmmaker to get their hands on Hollywood

level filmmaking tools. After having success making these anti-war films, women,

mostly feminists, then turned their cameras toward the Feminist movement and its

struggle for gender equality. The Woman’s Film, directed by Louise Alaimo and Judy

Smith and produced by San Francisco Newsreel was one of the first feminist

documentaries that was made by an all female production crew. The film uses interviews

and conversations from an extremely diverse group of all women describing their

struggle and dissatisfaction with living in a patriarchal society.

Shot in black and white, the film opens with an Agnes Varda type montage of

women doing domestic tasks. We see several close up shots of women’s hands washing

dishes, cleaning sinks, and pushing a vacuum cleaner. The rest of the film is a collection

of different groups of women telling stories about their own problems. Shot mostly in the

“talking head” style, the women rarely address the camera. Mostly they address each

other as all scenes are shot in a room with a group of women gathered together. The

women talk about their dissatisfaction with being marginalized at home or at work. One

woman opens the film with a tragic story about how she was made to believe as a young

girl that marriage was her only way of being successful, or as she put is it “I was gonna

have it made when I got married.” The film however, does not just focus on middle-aged

married women. Another strong scene is that of a young girl who appears to be in her

20’s. She talks to her fellow women about the struggle she had as a woman in her

professional career. After dreaming of becoming a professional writer she got a job as a

typist at a publishing agency. Instead of climbing the ladder she eventually realized that

she was spending her time typing manuscripts written by men. She also explains how

because of her attractiveness her boss was using her to attract male writers to the agency.

One of the most powerful aspects of the film is the way the women are shown

talking to each other in groups. The idea of a “Consciousness-Raising Group” became

widespread among women in the late 1960’s. Through these groups women were finally

getting together and sharing their thoughts and opinions about how their lives could be

better. It acted as a support group for the Feminist movement to grow out of. Watching

the film, it almost appears it is one long meeting of a consciousness-raising group.

Throughout the film the audience eventually notices the different groups of women but

one can get the feeling that these women could all be in the same place. The woman who

opens the film talking in a close up shot with her children wandering around the room is

eventually joined at the end of the film by a group of women. It is in this scene where

she describes her own consciousness-raising group. I also that the most effective shots

pertaining to the group settings were not the close ups of women telling their stories but

the close ups of the women listening to those stories. Several times throughout the film

while a woman is talking there is a cut to a shot of another woman, maybe two women

just listening. The directors even went a step further with shots of women talking with

other women listening in the background or other women chiming in with words of

support for the woman speaking.

One of the most important consciousness-raising films ever made came after The

Woman’s Film in 1974. Where The Woman’s Film began as a collection of women

talking about their problems the film Self Health went a step further down the

consciousness-raising road. The film is a documentary about a group of women who get

together and explore their bodies. Tired of being told that their bodies belonged to male

doctors, women were educating themselves and each other about everything from minor

health issues to childbirth. The film was accused of being “pornographic” because it

showed women giving each other breast exams. This is the ultimate irony considering

the way women were and still are being objectified in popular culture.

The Woman’s Film not only paved the way for a new style of feminist documentary

but it also gave women the courage and inspiration to pick up a camera and point it at

what they felt was wrong with the world around them.

ANATOMY OF A SCENE: The ‘Low Angle’ Brilliance of CITIZEN KANE

The making of the best film of all time
photo courtesy of CNN

“I like the old masters…by which I mean John Ford, John Ford, and John Ford.” – Orson Welles

Citizen Kane has long been considered one of, if not the greatest American film in history. Orson Welles’ 1941 classic is a watershed moment in Hollywood history, signaling the beginning of filmmakers breaking away from the Studio system of filmmaking. When it was made, Hollywood was at the height of its “industrial” status of making movies. Welles, along with cinematographer Greg Toland, pulled out all of the stops for the young theater director and radio star from the Mercury Theater in New York. Although this film is as close to perfection as you can get, I believe one of its shining moments is the scene between Kane and Jed Leland after Kane has lost the election for Governor of New York.

How to Shoot Dialogue Scenes - Videomaker
photo courtesy of Videomaker

After Charles Foster Kane gets caught in a ‘Love Nest’ and exposed by his political rival ‘Boss’ Jim Gettys, he not only loses the Governor election but he also loses his marriage when his wife Emily decides to leave him. While crushing losses, both personal and political, would break a man Kane shows no signs of letting go of his power and arrogance. Even when his closest friend and partner Jed Leland comes to see him after the results are in. Welles’ inspiration from John Ford is all over this scene, two major aspects in particular are the set design and the blocking of the actors. Ford loved using real sets, especially with ceilings, not just to show the actors in a natural environment but also to allow himself to be more creative with low angle shots. Here, a 2 minutes-plus scene with minimal cuts and shot at an extremely low angle, this scene had to be done on a natural set. When Jed enters the room to talk to Kane he begins to show his disapproval of what has become of his boss, and his friend for that matter. Hiding behind his drunkenness he lays into ‘Charlie’ letting him know that he can no longer go on trying to control and manipulate people. The most effective use of the low angle camera is the way it portrays Kane, alternating between strength and weakness. Ordinarily the low angle shot of an actor shows them in a dominant powerful position with the audience looking up at them. Welles and Toland really flipped this notion on its head with this scene. At the start of their conversation Kane is standing right in front of the camera, so close that we can only make out his legs below the knees. Jed stands in the midground at an angle in a full shot. As his criticisms begin to get nastier, Kane walks back towards him and now we begin to see Kane looking weaker in the scene despite the fact that we are at his feet looking up at him. As he approaches Jed, Kane gets smaller and smaller in the frame, almost as if Jed’s words are cutting him down to size, until he stops and stands right next to Jed. It is at this point that we see both men, the same size and height, unbeknownst to Kane and his ego, they are on equal ground.

The blocking of the actors is not only an inspiration from Ford but also one of Welles’ greatest strengths as both a theater actor and director. Citizen Kane is one of the first films I can recall seeing and noticing that with its blocking, sets, and camera angles, flows like a Broadway play. The natural sets, most of them raised up on stilts or stages in order to get every angle possible, enabled Welles to perform his magic in every frame. In this scene, despite two cuts, the camera never moves with the actors. Welles and Joseph Cotten pace back and forth, around each other as they deliver their dialogue, mostly cutting and dramatic lines from Cotten. Early on in the scene Welles strolls away from the camera past Cotten and into the background, showing the depth of the frame the same way John Ford would have his actors ride deep into the splendor of Monument Valley back toward the horizon. When Welles returns and continues past Cotten in the other direction he walks right in front of the camera and we see by his eyes that Jed’s harsh words are registering. The scne concludes with both actor in a medium two shot. Kane pours a drink and tries to make a joke about Jed moving to Chicago. Jed brushes it off and demands to be sent, wiping the smile right off Kane’s face. He then delivers one of the classic lines in Hollywood history: “A toast, Jedediah, to love on my terms…the only terms one ever knows…his own.”

Just about any scene from Citizen Kane can be dissected and analyzed and praised. This was filmmaking on “Orson Welles’ terms.” And for that he may just be the greatest filmmaker of all time.

NOT A PRETTY PICTURE (1976): Martha Coolidge and one of the most courageous debuts by a filmmaker

Present Tense: Martha Coolidge
Photo courtesy of Film Comment

Martha Coolidge’s Not A Pretty Picture is maybe more shocking and effective today then it was more than 40 years ago when it was first released.  Sadly the film did not receive widespread attention or accolades when it was initially released but it did catch the attention of Francis Ford Coppola, which led to a huge break for Coolidge.  While Coolidge’s career blossomed after Not A Pretty Picture, one could argue that it is still her most important film.

          This film has a very abstract format, which has been called “Brechtian” because of its use of real time reflection by its cast and crew.  The first half of the film is mostly a narrative drama about a high school girl who is date raped by an older college boy.  While the film resembles an “after school PSA” in its style and acting performance, the subject matter is certainly shocking enough to overcome any average performance by the cast.  When the crew of teenagers arrives at the empty apartment where the film’s most dynamic scene takes place, we follow “Curly” the male lead played by Jim Carrington, and actress Michele Manenti, who plays the fictional version of a 16 year old Martha Coolidge, as they get closer.  Michele, who we see is already uncomfortable being alone at this party, follows Curly through a hole in the wall to a private bedroom.  What follows is a multiple take sequence of Curly forcing himself on Michele and assaulting her.

          The acting of this scene really shines due to its real life intensity from both Curly and Michele.  As each take progresses we can see a change in Curly’s aggressiveness in attacking Michele.  Michele does what is expected of her and although she valiantly resists in the beginning she sadly goes numb and succumbs to Curly’s attack.  Curly, played by Jim Carrington, is clearly more effected by this scene than his co-star Michele, who herself, like Coolidge was also a victim of sexual assault.  After each take Carrington apologizes to Michele and checks to make sure she is not injured as he can feel himself filling with rage and anger while portraying his character’s advances.  The scene is so effective that we even see the camera cut to Martha Coolidge as she watches the action from a distance, her hand over her mouth, and looking very concerned for both of her actor’s.  Coolidge, who between takes was coaching Carrington on how to portray the assault, seems almost shocked and regretful in this shot, thinking that she has produced a performance from her actors that almost matches her own memory of being assaulted.  Carrington is really the one who ends up being regretful as we see in the next segment where the narrative part of the film is interrupted by the documentary discussion between Coolidge and the actors.

          After several takes of the rape scene the actors take a break and have a discussion with Coolidge on the mattress where the rape scene just occurred.  The power and context of this scene was clearly wearing out the participants and that is why I believe it was a brilliant decision for Coolidge to break up the action and check in with her actors.  As we soon find out, Jim Carrington needed it.  As Carrington explains how his shock at the feeling of entitlement by his character Curly, he begins to reveal his own feelings and regrets.  Carrington states that the scene has caused him to look at his own actions and behavior towards women.  While he never assaulted a woman himself, he can see through the lens of this character that men in general need to readjust how they treat women.  It is a fascinating scene to watch Coolidge and Michele Manenti, two victims of sexual assault, having to counsel Jim Carrington and his reaction to portraying the attacker.

          I believe that Martha Coolidge’s style of mixing narrative and documentary for this film was most effective.  I was very impressed that she not only had the courage to tackle such a serious personal issue so early in her career but that she used her filmmaking skills so eloquently in the process.

WANDA (1970): A look at Barbara Loden’s classic “Woman’s” film from the 70’s

Wanda - Movie Review - The Austin Chronicle

Barbara Loden, writer, director, and star of WANDA chose a very bold introduction

to the main character. The first thing we see of Loden is her hands protruding from

underneath a white bedsheet. She slowly pulls the sheet off herself and sits up. At this

moment we don’t see Barbara Loden, the beautiful blonde Hollywood star, we see

Wanda, the disheveled woman with hair in disarray covering some of her face. As she

rubs her eyes we can already tell that she is a woman under some type of stress. The

scene cuts to an extreme wide shot that slowly zooms to a wide shot of the rural mining

landscape where the film is set. Wanda, dressed in all white, looks ghostly against the

dark and dirty hills behind her. Wanda, strolling casually along, is actually on her way to

court for a custody hearing with her ex-husband.

Inside the courtroom, Wanda is absent while the judge calls her name. Wanda’s

husband then tells the judge how irresponsible and unreliable she is. Wanda is unable to

defend herself because as we see, the scene cuts to outside the courtroom. Wanda stands

outside smoking a cigarette when she should be inside facing the judge. I believe that

this is Barbara Loden’s strongest example of Wanda’s character. Without any dialogue

from Wanda we are shown how careless she is when facing something as greatly

important as a custody hearing for her children. When she finally does she speak to the

judge her answers are not too shocking based on what we’ve already seen. Wanda

pathetically tells the judge that if her husband wants a divorce then “you should just give

it to him.” This scene is based on Barbara Loden’s inspiration for the film. Loden was

inspired by the newspaper story of a woman who accompanied her husband on a crime

spree and was arrested and convicted. When the judge sentenced her to prison the woman

replied “Thank you.”

Another moment that Loden uses appearance and body language to effectively

develop Wanda is at the shopping mall. Wanda strolls through the mall aimlessly until

she stops and looks at a store window display. Wanda is looking at the clothes on display

but it is the mannequins who stand out in the scene. Wearing blonde wigs and positioned

directly behind Loden’s profile, there is a striking resemblance between the inanimate

dolls and Wanda. It is not hard to make the connection that Wanda sadly carries herself

as though she were a mannequin, lifeless and emotionless. The world sees her beauty but

nothing below the surface.

This film has many similarities with the famous “Road movies” of the 1960’s and

70’s. The typical road movie involved a pair travelling together in a car either on the run

from the law or just looking for an adventure. Wanda appears to be a road movie because

of the relationship between Mr. Dennis and Wanda and how they travel around in his car

committing crimes. It almost resembles the classic Bonnie and Clyde. Where Wanda

differs from these classic road movies is in the portrayal of Wanda herself. The road trip

that she takes with Mr. Dennis seems to have no point to it at all. Wanda, not having

anything better to do with herself, just gets dragged along by Mr. Dennis for obvious

reasons. The two characters do not have a good relationship and are not working toward

any major goal other than bank robbery. In Bonnie and Clyde where the characters and

their crimes are romanticized, Wanda plays out as a tragedy where the main character is

swept into a dangerous crime spree by a controlling and abusive man. There is no

romance for Wanda. Only a series of episodes where she exposes herself to be controlled

and used by the men around her.

In the final act of the film Mr. Dennis and Wanda take a bank managers family

hostage while Mr. Dennis tries to rob the bank. The climax of the bank robbery is when

Mr. Dennis is shot and killed by the police. Wanda, who was supposed to be the getaway

driver, arrives late as usual. When she approaches the bank she sees a crowd forming

outside. She tries to walk into the bank but is held back by a policeman. With a shaky

camera, shot from behind the outstretched arm of a police officer, this shot closely

resembles a TV news camera reporting from the scene of the crime. This is the most

obvious example of the documentary style brought to the film by cinematographer

Nicholas Proferes.

Wanda differs from a typical slow film in the sense that Barbara Loden left the

characters in the film totally ambiguous. There is no explanation as to why Wanda is

divorced or why she decides to go on the road with Mr. Dennis. We also have no

explanation as to what happens to her at the end. Will she continue her pursuit of nothing

or has she learned a lesson from her crime spree with Mr. Dennis? The audience is left to

draw their own conclusions and this is difficult because Loden has not left us with the

information we need to understand Wanda. Wanda is a character that is not slow but

almost inanimate. She floats around from man to man like paper on a breeze

Akira Kurosawa/John Ford: EAST MEETS WEST

15 Best John Ford Movies You Need To Watch | Taste Of Cinema ...
Akira Kurosawa Great Director profile • Senses of Cinema

Akira Kurosawa. John Ford. Two directors considered to be the quintessential

filmmakers of their respective countries surprisingly have much in common. While

most of the similarities stem from Kurosawa’s admiration of his elder, Kurosawa

definitely shared and expanded on Ford’s legendary style. There are, I believe, three

major aspects that connect these two giants of cinema.

The first and most obvious connection between Kurosawa and Ford is their

focus on specific time periods as the setting for their films. John Ford is

synonymous with the Hollywood “Western” film. In his career as a Director, Ford

directed twenty five Western feature films and a number of Western TV episodes.

Not only did Ford favor the Western genre, he made it his own with classics such as

Stagecoach, The Searchers, and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. A John Ford

Western became an epic presentation of not only the dramatic endeavors of the

characters but also a sweeping and mesmerizing view of the American landscape.

For Kurosawa, his “Samurai” epics were no different. From the aptly titled Seven

Samurai to Yojimbo and Throne of Blood, Kurosawa gave the audience, through

costume and action, an authentic adaptation of Japan’s medieval history. In the ten

Samurai films that Kurosawa made he also employed the same style of Ford’s

Westerns by showcasing the Japanese landscape in epic proportions. The

composition and shooting style is another tactic that brings the two directors closer

together.

In the opening scene of The Searchers, John Wayne as “Ethan Edwards” rides

toward his brother’s ranch. The shot is breathtaking in the sense that it is not a long

tracking shot or a pan but it is classic Ford: having his subjects move from

background to foreground or vice versa in an attempt to convey the depth of the

image on screen. Almost twenty years earlier, Ford debuted this shot several times

in his classic Stagecoach. From the moment the coach rolls away from the camera

into Monument Valley on its way from Tonto to Lordsburg, the audience can see

that the road ahead stretches all the way to the horizon. In Kurosawa’s classic

Throne of Blood one cannot deny the similarity of the Samurai riding his horse

frantically from background to foreground as he approaches Spider’s Web castle.

Moments later, when we are introduced to “Washizu” and “Miki”, we see them lost

in a foggy forest. Kurosawa’s use of the two men on horseback appearing like ghosts

from background to foreground through the fog is magical. Like Ford, Kurosawa

used the depth of the image to convey that Washizu and Miki were lost and riding

back and forth in the same direction. Keeping them inside the frame rather than

panning with them from side to side gives the viewer the sense that the two soldiers

are trapped inside this location.

As well as Throne of Blood, there is also a similarity to Ford’s style in the

opening scene of Yojimbo. The “Ronin” played by Kurosawa favorite Toshiro Mifune,

is introduced in a medium shot walking among the tall grass with large mountain

peaks on the horizon. After throwing a stick in the air and letting it decide which

direction he will go, Mifune starts off down the road, straight down the center of the

frame. The shot is meant to grab the audience as if we are following the Ronin down

that long path.

When most people hear the name John Ford only one thing comes to mind:

John Wayne. Another of Ford’s favorites was Henry Fonda who starred in My

Darling Clementine. As Wyatt Earp, Henry Fonda finds himself entering the town of

Tombstone, Arizona at the start of the film and finding it’s inhabitants terrorized by

criminals. The same can be said for “The Ringo Kid” in Stagecoach and “Ransom

Stoddard” and “Tom Donophin” in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Watching

Yojimbo, and seeing the Ronin as he arrives in town to find people hiding indoors

and then, when he is accosted by a gang of thugs, I immediately thought of Henry

Fonda’s Wyatt Earp or John Wayne as The Ringo Kid or any other hero from a John

Ford Western. Both Ford and Kurosawa liked to portray their hero as an outlaw

with a toughness and swagger that could withstand even the most dangerous bad

guys. I also believe that just as Wayne and Ford went hand in hand so did Kurosawa

and Mifune. These two legendary actors were both groomed by their respective

directors and arguably gave the best performances of their careers because of it.

Whether it is the red majesty of Monument Valley or the grassy plains and

mountain peaks of medieval Japan, with Akira Kurosawa and John Ford, it is always

the same result. A masterpiece of cinema that takes the audience on a ride into the

depths of history and into the depths of the landscape on the silver screen before

them.

REDS (1981) A look back at Warren Beatty’s tour de force

Reds (1981)
image courtesy of IMDB.com

Just before the last credit crawls on the screen at the end of REDS, the voice of one of the “witnesses” says “…grand things are ahead, worth living and worth dying for…”.  The witness is referring to John “Jack” Reed, the main character of the film but one wonders if this could also refer to the writer, director, and star of the film as well.  If you know Warren Beatty’s career then you certainly know that he has been the master at convincing producers, cast members, crew and audiences that if they give him the chance “grand things are ahead.”  REDS, his passion project about American journalist John Reed and his involvement in the Communist Party in the United States as well as his intense coverage of the Russian Revolution of 1917, is a grand achievement of cinematic brilliance.  The film is not without its faults.  Some would say that Beatty bit off more than he could chew with such a large scale production or that he was maniacal and egotistical on set causing friction among everyone involved with the film.  Both of these are fair criticisms.  With a fresh eye I’m going to look deeper at the greatness and shortcomings of this epic and try to offer a humble critique.

THE PROGRESSIVE ERA and Mise en scene

The attention to detail in this film is nothing short of perfection.  This is not Beatty’s first time making a period piece as we know from BONNIE AND CLYDE where he marvelously brought to life  Depression Era Texas.  In REDS he goes a step further with Progressive Era New York.  The moment “Louise Bryant” played impeccably by Diane Keaton steps off a trolley car with the Flatiron building in the background I was lost in time.  Nothing of this film felt fake or portrayed.  Horses strolling down Greenwich Village streets.  Dark, candlelit basement bars where Jack Nicholson, dressed in suspenders drinking whiskey, plays the intense “Eugene O’Neill.”  Louise sitting on the beach reading a letter from Jack Reed, looking like the subject of an Impressionist painting rather than a Hollywood actress.  The entire film is a collection of theses shots that are as beautiful as they are authentic. While Beatty had the vision it is clear that the real credit goes to Vittorio Storaro.  Fresh off of his Academy Award win for Best Cinematography for APOCALYPSE NOW, Storaro would be awarded by the Academy again with his second of three wins for Cinematography for this film.

Outside of the New York city atmosphere was where Storaro really flexed his artistic muscles.  Early in the film when Jack and Louise vacation at the beach there are several breathtaking shots besides Louise’s letter reading scene.  Whether it is group gatherings on the beach or Jack and Louise strolling alone through the sand dunes, the filtered shots make the landscape and characters glow in the warm light.  Later in the film, when Louise is trekking across the Finnish tundra, we also see a long shot of the cold, snow covered landscape beaming with the reflection of the sunset.  Storaro counters these warm and cozy images with some beautifully darker images of those very same locations.  Whether it is Eugene O’Neill walking on the beach at dusk or the Finnish landscape after dark the frame is drenched in a cool blue texture matching the intensity of theses scenes.

THE RUSSIAN REVOLUTION

The most interesting and effective scenes of the film are, not surprisingly, the sequence of Jack and Louise’s eyewitness account of the ‘Ten days That Shook The World.”  These two characters played magnificently by Keaton and Beatty(more so by Keaton) capture the beauty, intellect, danger, and romance of their collective experience in Russia.  While it was no surprise that their romance would rekindle when they arrived in Petrograd, it wasn’t sappy or overly dramatic.  In fact I believe that the portrayal of Louise as a witness to not only the drama of the Russian Revolution but also the transformation of Jack from American journalist to Communist revolutionary was riveting.  I don’t know why Beatty felt the need to add eyewitness testimonies sprinkled in between the narrative action but I really wish he hadn’t.  The wide eyed close-ups of Diane Keaton cut with shots of Beatty giving rousing speeches to crowds of Russian workers were so much more effective.  Everytime the film got some narrative momentum going it unfortunately was cut off by a “PBS-style” documentary commentary.

The signature shot of the film is Louise Bryant as she watches “Jack”, slightly raised above a crowd of people cheering as he makes a grand spectacle.  But really the entire film is us, the audience, cheering as we watch Warren Beatty, high up on the screen making a grand spectacle.

FOR SAMA: For Your Consideration

Image result for for sama poster"
photo courtesy of www.forsamafilm.com


In 92 years of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science’s tradition of awarding filmmakers, only 5 times has a woman been nominated for Best Director. Their names are Kathryn Bigelow(The Hurt Locker/won), Lina Wertmuller(Seven Beauties), Jane Campion(The Piano), Sofia Coppola(Lost in Translation), and Greta Gerwig(Ladybird). When the 2020 Academy Award Nominations came out the usual discussions took place among movie fans. All of the hype surrounds the hottest race: Best Director. Who will it be? Will it be Quentin Tarantino for his two and a half hour film about an aging Hollywood actor and his best buddy that ends with a violent twist to one of the most violent episodes in Hollywood history? Or will it be Martin Scorsese for his even longer three hour epic about a murderer who had to be played by an aging Robert DeNiro made to look like he was 50 years younger? Don’t count out Todd Phillips who decided to throw the Comic Book film model on its head by not making a movie about the Heroes but instead about the Villain who becomes…you guessed it, a murderer! Little do these 3 men, or the Academy for that matter, know that there is a director that in 2019 blew all 3 of their films combined out of the water. And this Director is a WOMAN.

This woman, Waad Al-Kateab, is the director of the Oscar nominated documentary “For Sama.” To say this movie is breathtaking and powerful would be a gross understatement. It is the story of a girl who moved to the city of Aleppo to study and stayed there, fell in love, got married, had a baby girl named Sama, was pregnant with her second child when she was finally forced to flee the city of Aleppo in December 2016. Waad used her camera to document all of those happy moments that I just mentioned but she also wanted to document the siege of Aleppo from a perspective no one else got to see until now which sadly is too late. The footage she captured is beyond shocking. Her original plan for filming the siege was to try and get the outside world’s attention and show them the atrocities being committed by the Syrian and Russian forces. Along with her husband, Hamza Al-Kateab, who is a doctor, and their friends, they set up a makeshift hospital in the city. Watching the camera shake and hearing the blasts of missiles and rockets is nothing compared to seeing the scores of casualties being dragged into the hospital. As a spoiler I can tell you that this is not for the faint of heart and while the efforts of Hamza and Waad and their friends are beyond heroic, they were definitely fighting a losing battle to put it mildly.

Throughout the film Waad narrates and explains that this film is a message to her daughter, Sama. Sama was born in Aleppo in 2015 just as the siege led by the brutal forces of Bashar al Assad and backed strongly by the Russian military, was about to enter its most violent stage. This little miracle named Sama drinks her bottle, plays with her toys, and smiles at the camera all while she is shown at other moments being carried through dust from an explosion or cowering from the loud explosions right outside her window. I don’t know how Waad found such strength, courage, determination to document this horror even if it meant handing off Sama to a friend when there was a missile attack and she wanted to grab her camera to film.

For Sama is a film that the world needs to see. Waad Al-Kateab masterfully tells her story about moving to a new city, studying, making friends, falling in love, getting married and starting a family. This is a universal story. However, she also captures something that some of her male colleagues from Hollywood can hopefully learn from, even at their old age. Waad showed the world the destruction of her city and country by an oppressive regime. More than anything though, she showed violence, only her violence is not “cinematic.” It’s the type of violence most people can’t even imagine exists and at the same time hopes and prays that they never have to experience it the same way Waad and Hamza and most importantly Sama experienced it.

Once Upon A Time In Hollywood

Image result for once upon a time in hollywood
Photo courtesy of Forbes.com

[SPOILER ALERT: This post contains spoilers]

Quentin Tarantino’s latest film “Once Upon A Time In Hollywood” is at the same time a love letter to Hollywood, Los Angeles, Film and TV of the 1960’s, and a very misguided twist on the-still shocking 50 years later-Sharon Tate murders in August 1969. Although I’m not a huge fan of Tarantino myself I can say that it is a joy to watch when he shows off his exceptional filmmaking and writing skills. At 2 hours and 45 minutes, however, the master may have bit off more than he could chew.

The three stories that run parallel to each other for most of the film are so well written that I believe each could stand on their own. The first story, that of fading Western TV star Rick Dalton played by Leonardo Dicaprio and his stunt double/driver/assistant Cliff Booth played by Brad Pitt is so good it’s a wonder what took so long to get these 2 guys together in the same movie. While it may be hard to believe that Leo could pull off playing a washed up TV actor on the wrong side of 40 who nobody wants to hire, he does it in spades. Rick Dalton is an insecure, alcoholic clown and yet Leo gives him such heart and depth that for almost 3 hours I was not only captivated by him but also pulling for him. Brad Pitt also finds himself in an unfamiliar role that he nails, maybe better than Leo does with Dalton. Cliff Booth is a stuntman who was Dalton’s stunt double on his hit TV series “Bounty Law” but now operates as Dalton’s lacky, doing odd jobs for him and driving him to auditions. While driving around Hollywood he picks up a young hippie girl who takes him to the Manson family commune at Spahn Ranch. This scene is outstanding. Tarantino uses a beautiful wide angle shot of Booth’s point of view of the decrepit, decaying former western TV lot. We follow Booth as he meets and interacts with the Manson family members. Dakota Fanning is excellent as “Squeaky” Fromme, who has a very short and hostile encounter with Booth. By using the audiences knowledge of the history of the Manson family, Tarantino is able to create so much tension in the scene that you’re not sure if he’s going to make it out of this place alive.

Much criticism has been hurled at Tarantino for his portrayal of Sharon Tate which I believe is unwarranted. While he does have a history of objectifying women I don’t see that in the performance of Margot Robbie. Robbie, with more than enough beauty to match Tate, floats through the film like an angel. She is shown dancing at parties, enjoying her mansion at 10050 Cielo Drive, giving a hitchhiker a ride, pretty much being the beautiful soul she was known to be. Probably the most beautiful moment in the film regarding Tate is when she goes to a theater to see herself on the big screen in the Dean Martin action film, “The Wrecking Crew.” Tate sits in the dark theater and is filled with joy and genuine pride when the audience responds to her performance.

Of all of the villains in Tarantino’s movies, his Manson family may be the scariest, probably because they were real people. While Charles Manson is portrayed in a very short, unremarkable scene, it is the “Manson girls” at the Ranch and in the dumpsters of Hollywood who really steal the show. As mentioned earlier, the scene where Cliff Booth goes to the Ranch is an excellent introduction and portrayal of just how lost and deranged these people were. The empty, blank stares, the open hostility of Dakota Fanning, and the aggressiveness of “Tex” Watson are downright scary. But where the writer/director gets the Manson family behavior correct, he also drops the ball when it comes to their most famous act. No one, and I mean no one wants to see the murder of Sharon Tate recreated in a Hollywood film even someone with a lust for violence like Tarantino but the way he “rewrites” history and turns it into a total farce that doesn’t even include the house or the occupants at 10050 Cielo Drive does a disservice to the victim’s memory.

“Once Upon A Time In Hollywood” is an homage to the Hollywood of the 1960’s and with the brilliance of Tarantino’s attention to detail, one can feel like they are walking down Hollywood Boulevard, getting a table at El Coyote, being in the middle of a Wild West shootout on the backlot of a major studio. They can also have their fairy tale ending, even if that’s all it is.