Genre fare often offers implicit commentary on the state of social affairs (sometimes it's explicit). This can be illuminating when you are familiar with the social context, but I feel I am missing something when I watch films from other countries. So I know that Train to Busan is seen by some as an allegory for Korean politics, but I don't know enough about the topic to be able to identify the allegory. It's not that the allegory is missing, it's that I am missing the allegory.
Which thus leaves me to react to Train to Busan on its genre elements. And on that level, this is a terrific movie. Wikipedia calls it a "zombie apocalypse action thriller", and that pretty much gets it. The zombies are of the fast-moving variety. One article by Ezra Klein suggests that such zombies are "too fast to be truly scary", and a case can be made that the slower version of zombies have a better chance of taking over the world. But the fast ones are indeed scary in the immediate sense, especially when there are lots of them. This was the case in World War Z, but the huge budget for that movie seemed to make it more a special-effects extravaganza than a character-driven thriller.
Train to Busan is constructed like a classic thriller. Right from the start, there are intimations of the horrors to come, but they are only intimations. Still, the suspense is serious (after all, we know the zombies are coming). And once the zombies arrive (fairly quickly), the suspense is replaced with open-jawed thrills.
Two things in particular make Train to Busan impressive. First, there is a dedication to the characters, who are painted in quick scenes but who always feel slightly more than stock from the genre's closet. We care about the characters, which isn't a necessary component to a zombie thriller, but it does lift this movie a bit above the rest. Second, the zombies really are impressive. It's not just that they are fast, it's that they feel real. I don't know how much, if any, CGI Yeon used, but it's very old-school in its presentation, as if instead of going straight to the computer, they actually hired a bunch of extras. Yeon's previous work was in animation, and the zombies have the kind of physics-defying qualities you'll see in cartoons.
The tension is mostly non-stop, with little time to take a breath. I don't suppose Train to Busan will appeal to people who don't like zombie movies, but it certainly ranks high within the genre. 8/10.
By request: I Am Not Your Negro (Raoul Peck, 2016).
Nominated for the Best Documentary Feature Oscar (it lost to O.J.: Made in America), I Am Not Your Negro reminds those of us who remember James Baldwin how important he was (and hopefully introduces him to younger viewers). I remember reading The Fire Next Time when I was 10 or 11, and it turned on many lights for me, growing up as I did in a town with no black people. I don’t know that Baldwin’s fame has had the staying power of King, or Malcolm, or the Panthers, perhaps because while he was a vocal advocate, he was primarily a writer, not a speech giver. His autobiographical novel Go Tell It on the Mountain was still being taught when I was in college. Perhaps I’m wrong, and Baldwin is still remembered as an important figure. In any event, I Am Not Your Negro does a solid job of bringing Baldwin to our attention, using film clips and voice-over narration of his words read by Samuel L. Jackson, who effectively buries himself in the role (it took me awhile to realize it was an actor reading those lines). This is an efficient documentary that speaks to us today, as well as serving as a history lesson. #723 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century. 9/10.
Film Fatales #28: Jesus’ Son (Alison Maclean, 1999). Billy Crudup heads an impressive cast in a film based on a series of short stories by Denis Johnson. There is a casual realism to the tale of junkies and lo-fi criminals, partly due to the presence of so many characters who are neither junkies nor criminals. It’s a slice-of-life with no apparent agenda. It could use a little more spice ... this isn’t Sid and Nancy. Crudup’s character is named “Fuckhead”, and by his actions and his voice-over narration, I thought “FH” was a bit slow, which I don’t think was the intention. Among the supporting cast, many in what amounts to cameos, are Samantha Morton, “Mike” Shannon, Denis Leary (not as obnoxious as usual), Jack Black, Will Patton, Miranda July, Dennis Hopper, Kevin Carroll from The Leftovers, and Holly Hunter. Maclean deserves credit for a production that clearly had appeal to a lot of actors (this was only her second feature ... she has done a lot of work in television). I wanted to like this one more than I actually did. 6/10. (Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)
The Thing from Another World (Christian Nyby, 1951). Revisiting a favorite. There is a long-standing discussion about whether Nyby actually directed The Thing (an editor, this was his first credited director’s job). Howard Hawks produced ... Nyby had worked with Hawks many times, and when people pointed out how Hawksian The Thing was, Nyby reportedly said that of course Hawks rubbed off on him from all their work together. The film makes an impressive example of the auteur theory as it applied to the studio system ... everyone thinks Hawks directed it because it’s recognizably a lot like many other movies he directed. You can enjoy The Thing without knowing this stuff ... it’s compact, manages to make individual characters out of the stock cast, and is more horror than sci-fi. It’s hardly worth comparing it to the John Carpenter remake ... they are quite different. 9/10.
As we watched it, my wife said the following has always been one of her favorite movie scenes:
I just finished Joel Selvin's book on Altamont, and then watched Gimme Shelter again. The concluding section of the book discusses Gimme Shelter. Selvin is less interested in assigning blame than in getting to the details behind the legend ... by the time we get to the movie, we've come to know many of the people who turn up in that movie, and have a better understanding of where they were coming from.
First, a few words about Selvin’s book, since I’ve written a lot about Gimme Shelter in the past. The book is long, detailed, and seems to be well-researched. Selvin was well-placed to write the book, being a Bay Area native who has had a long career as a music critic, and is an author of several books on music. In his afterword, he notes that “I knew better than to go to Altamont”, then offers the observations of friends who did attend (“[M]y friends knew nothing about what had really gone on. They had a good time ...”). This mirrors my own experience ... I had friends who went, and they returned speaking joyfully about “Woodstock West”. (In later years, they talked about how awful it was ... the vagaries of memory.) The book works in part as a warm-up for the movie, filling in what was largely left unreported in the film. But the movie is never far from Selvin’s mind:
That movie became the accepted account of the day, the official record of history, despite the fact that the Rolling Stones themselves were partners in the film’s production.... The story needed to be told, as fully and completely as possible. The tangled threads of the movie and the concert needed to be unbraided.
Selvin may be up to more than handing out blame, but he does make himself clear. “[W]hen all the facts are presented, it’s hard to see true responsibility lying with anyone but the Rolling Stones.” And he connects this to Gimme Shelter:
[W]hy did the Rolling Stones go through with the concert? That crucial decision – and the underlying determination that went into it – made the difference in everything that happened at Altamont. There is only one plausible reason: the final scene to the concert movie. There is no other good explanation for why Jagger and company proceeded with this concert in the days before the show as it unraveled in front of their eyes.... It is simply not true that this free concert was some magnanimous, beneficent gesture. The Stones wanted something out of the deal, and what they wanted was a big finish for their epochal movie that they hoped would document their magnificent return to glory.
What the book Altamont does is place the above in context. He doesn’t absolve everyone other than the Stones, but “The Hells Angels needed to be portrayed as they were – real people with names who were placed in a treacherous, untenable situation – not cardboard cutout villains. The role of the Grateful Dead and their ultimate betrayal by the Stones needed to be detailed.... The massive use of toxic drugs was not examined.”
So, Gimme Shelter. I have huge emotional reactions to the film every time I see it. Over the years, I have a more solid appreciation for the techniques and vision of the Maysles. But maybe "appreciation" is the wrong word, as is my reference to "Maysles". For on this watching, I decided the true artist was editor Charlotte Zwerin.
My friend Charlie Bertsch wrote a strong piece on the movie a few years ago. A big portion of that essay is devoted to refuting Pauline Kael’s take. She resisted the pull of “direct cinema”, emphasizing the “manipulative possibilities of filmmaking”. Charlie responds, “[T]he Maysles’ approach ... demands witnessing events without knowing how they will turn out”, as if this precludes the possibility of manipulation.
But Charlie also points us in the direction of what is really happening in Gimme Shelter when he rightfully praises the work of editor Charlotte Zwerin, “who earned co-director billing for the brilliant editing she did after filming was complete” [emphasis added]. He singles out scenes of Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts looking at footage from the film, which he calls “a brilliant idea for which Charlotte Zwerin gets the credit”. But if the Maysles want to fall back on "we don't stage stuff", those scenes would seem to contradict that idea. Jagger and Watts were invited, and filmed, by the filmmakers to watch the footage, which didn’t happen “naturally”.
Ultimately, the truest statement in Charlie’s piece is this: "The finished product’s success depends entirely on how the raw footage is edited together." No matter what the circumstances under which the Maysles worked, the film is made when Zwerin gets her talented hands on it. And film editing is as crucial, and as vulnerable to manipulation, as the shooting of the original footage. The Maysles may not have had a preformed idea of what they wanted the events to show, but Gimme Shelter requires that someone edit the footage. Charlotte Zwerin, whether working on her own or with the direction of the Maysles, manipulates the raw footage into the movie we see today. We can argue what Gimme Shelter is saying, but we can’t argue about the role the filmmakers had in making that statement. Michael Sragow, who Charlie quotes, is half right when he says “Gimme Shelter is not about manipulating events – it’s about letting events get away from you.” The latter part is true, which is one reason I find the movie so disturbing. But the first part is false.
Do I want to talk about “Slow Cinema” (or should I call it “Contemporary Contemplative Cinema”?), or do I want to just talk about Colossal Youth on its own and be done with it?
I feel a bit like I’m getting a crash course on this stuff, given my recent dive into the works of Andrei Tarkovsky. And part of me thinks I’m just warming up for the challenge of Sátántangó (Phil Dellio, who is the person who got me to put Sátántangó on my Request List, said of Colossal Youth, “Only 156 minutes, though--that's like a trailer for Sátántangó.”)
I don’t want to be reductive ... well, of course I want to be reductive, but I’m also trying to combat that tendency in myself ... I resist the very idea of “Slow Cinema”, not as an option for artists, but as something I want to watch. I wonder what my reaction to Colossal Youth would be if I’d known what it was in advance? (For some reason, I thought it was a 100-minute Japanese pop movie.)
Colossal Youth reminded me of Terrence Malick movies. I rarely like them, but I admire Malick’s ability to make the movies he wants, following his vision without much compromise. Based on Colossal Youth, and on things I’ve read about him, Pedro Costa makes the movies he wants to make. As I once said about Malick, Costa doesn’t care if I thought Colossal Youth was boring. He didn’t make it for me, he made it for himself. I admire him for that.
But I didn’t like watching his movie.
The film looks great. It’s often so dark you can barely see, but that fits with the settings. There are occasional shots that stun:
But honestly, it’s like watching paint dry. I often call movies like this “Coffee Table Movies”. The picture above looks great, but it would look as good in a book you had on your coffee table as it does on the screen, and I don’t have to stare at the book for 156 minutes.
So, call me a philistine. But I don’t let that fact prevent me from watching movies like Colossal Youth. You never know when one of them will end up on my Top 50 list. #548 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time, and #45 on the 21st century list. 6/10.
Just about every Memorial Day weekend, my wife and I go to Santa Cruz, where we spent our honeymoon, to celebrate our anniversary. And just about every one of those weekends, we see a movie, more often than not some popular new movie. (Well, the movie we saw on our honeymoon in 1973 was Hitler, the Last Ten Days with Alec Guinness.) Which is why we were at a multiplex to catch Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.
I was not the biggest fan of Volume 1 (5/10), so I wasn’t exactly looking forward to Vol. 2. So I am happy to say I was pleasantly surprised. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I liked it very much. But the thing that annoyed me the most about the first one (Bradley Cooper’s raccoon) wasn’t as obnoxious this time, for some reason.
There were a couple of things I actively liked. Dave Bautista’s laugh was always fun ... he took such joy in the simplest things. And it’s always nice to see Karen Gillan, although to be honest I don’t remember her from the first Guardians movie. Overall, I guess the best thing I can say about the movie is that it gave me little reason to hate it.
Although it came close. The father/son stuff didn’t do anything for me. And while I appreciate the attempt to add humor, I was reminded of what I said about the first one: “the dialogue isn’t exactly Whedon-esque”.
So I’m missing out. I’d much rather Marvel had somehow managed to get another season of Agent Carter on ABC. But this was an improvement on Volume 1. 6/10.
I recently took part in a poll asking for our favorite “road movies”, such films being loosely defined. My top five, in order, were Bonnie and Clyde, Breathless, L’Avventura, Y Tu Mamá También, and The Wizard of Oz. Topping the poll was Badlands. My own fave, Bonnie and Clyde, finished third. Second was Tarkovsky’s Stalker, which gave me an excuse to add another of his films to my list. I admit I was hesitant ... I haven’t exactly loved the ones I’ve seen, and Stalker is almost three hours long.
There is a plot to Stalker, but I don’t think anyone cared about it too much. It plays a bit like an artier, more philosophical version of Linklater’s “Before” movies. There are essentially three characters, known by their professions ... The Stalker (a guide who takes seekers through The Zone), The Professor, and The Writer (the latter two being the seekers). As they walk through The Zone, they partake in philosophical discussions about not only their own lives, but also the state of all humankind. It’s three hours of existential angst that sinks deep, not only because of the acting and dialogue, but also because of the look of the film, which is at times beautiful but it almost always stark. Add the setting, some kind of post-apocalypse world of blasted landscapes and leftover tanks that look like dinosaurs. It is bleak ... this is a bleak film, with little room for any kind of hope. The vagueness of the narrative, and the lack of explanation for what has happened to the physical world, forces us to narrow our focus to the discussions with the three men.
And it isn’t always easy to remain interested in those discussions. Some are better than others, but eventually you wish the damn thing was about an hour shorter.
As usual, Tarkovsky makes the film he wants, and leaves it to us to come to him ... he’s not coming to us. Take this segment from the film’s Wikipedia page:
Upon its release the film's reception was less than favorable. Officials at Goskino, a government group otherwise known as the State Committee for Cinematography, were critical of the film. On being told that Stalker should be faster and more dynamic, Tarkovsky replied:
“[T]he film needs to be slower and duller at the start so that the viewers who walked into the wrong theatre have time to leave before the main action starts.”
The Goskino representative then stated that he was trying to give the point of view of the audience. Tarkovsky supposedly retorted:
“I am only interested in the views of two people: one is called Bresson and one called Bergman.”
Fine aspirations. But my name is neither Bresson nor Bergman, which leaves me once again in the awkward position of trying to figure out a work by an artist who doesn’t care if I get it figured out or not. And this makes Stalker into one of those films that I admire much more than I actually like it. And my admiration is muted by Tarkovsky’s lack of interest in that admiration. Most critics can get past this ... it’s #59 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 7/10.
Bythewood and his wife, Gina Prince-Bythewood, have done a lot of work on television (most recently with Shots Fired). Prince-Bythewood has a bit more film work, including Beyond the Lights. What I’ve seen of their work is good enough to make me interested in what’s next. Reggie wrote and directed Biker Boyz, Gina was a co-producer.
Biker Boyz has one of those “everyone is in it” casts: Laurence Fishburne, Derek Luke, Orlando Jones, Djimon Hounsou, Lisa Bonet, Larenz Tate, Terrence Howard, Kid Rock, Meagan Good, Vanessa Bell Calloway, Kadeem Hardison, Eriq La Salle, and more. All of the cast are good, even Kid Rock. But Derek Luke makes the movie worth watching, rising above the clichéd plot to deliver a powerful performance as an 18-year-old with daddy issues.
Unfortunately, the film isn’t up to what Luke offers. Based-on-a-true-story of underground biker gangs (they aren’t the Sons of Anarchy variety) who race each other, trying to be The King of Cali. Think The Fast and the Furious on motorcycles. Two things happen in Biker Boyz: people race motorcycles, and people try to get in touch with their inner selves. The latter is simple boilerplate ... kid’s father dies, King of Cali tries to watch out for him, kid rebels, etc. It’s nothing you haven’t seen 100 times before, which means those motorcycle races better be good. But they aren’t. They’re boring. All of them look the same, and because they are short (kind of like drag racing), the individual races don’t leave much room for the buildup of suspense.
Still, Derek Luke is terrific. He’s been around ... his first film was Antwone Fisher, for which he won several awards, and over the past fifteen years he’s been in all sorts of things, some of which I’ve seen ... playing Katie Holmes’ boyfriend in Pieces of April, turning up in a Tyler Perry movie, in the first Captain America movie, and lots more. And he’s been active in television, as well ... among other things, he had a short run in The Americans. So I’ve seen him, but I didn’t recognize him in Biker Boyz. Partly it’s that he was 29 years old when he played the teenager in Biker Boyz, but he looked the right age. So I find it hard to believe that Luke is now 43 years old, and he played an important part in 13 Reasons Why, which a lot of us have obsessed over the year. If I’d seen Biker Boyz in 2003, I’d say “look out for that Derek Luke, he’s good!” Instead, he’s been good all along and I didn’t notice.
Biker Boyz isn’t awful, but there is nothing new, and I could take it or leave it. 6/10.
And here’s a brief scene with Derek Luke from 13 Reasons Why:
Uruguayan director Fede Alvarez and his team, working on a budget of $10 million, turn out a picture that grossed more than $150 million. Don’t Breathe does such a good job of using atmosphere to deliver thrills that you don’t mind that the story is nothing new.
Three young burglars try to rob the house of a blind Army vet with money. It doesn’t go as planned. The blind man is very resourceful when it comes to dealing with intruders. He also has a few secrets. Alvarez and co-writer Rodo Sayagues do a good job of parceling out information, so that we know the blind man suffered greatly from the loss of his daughter, but the ramifications of this are held back until just the right moment. This is standard stuff for horror films, but the movie is almost done before the predictability takes over.
Stephen Lang as the blind man is the best thing about Don’t Breathe. He is both frightening and sympathetic, at least at first, and he convinces us that he can do the physical acts he performs despite being blind. The three robbers aren’t the usual klutzy doofuses ... they just overreach, and aren’t expecting that blind man to be such a powerful opponent. It’s fun to see Dylan Minnette a year before 13 Reasons Why, and Jane Levy plays ... well, if you don’t know who she plays, you haven’t read much theory about modern horror. (Hint: think Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween.)
Everything is compact and efficient. Alvarez and cinematographer Pedro Luque offer some elegant visuals in the early going, taking full advantage of what amounts to an old-dark-house setting. And it doesn’t exactly peter out at the end. It’s just that the “surprises” come more and more quickly, so that you begin to expect them, which takes away the scariness. If Don’t Breathe sounds good to you, chances are you’ll like it. But it doesn’t transcend its genre, so it’s not a must-see if you aren’t a fan to begin with. 7/10.
When I was a film major in the early 1970s, I wanted to make movies that combined fiction with a cinéma vérité approach. My first short film was decent enough ... it told the story of a recently-divorced woman, and nothing much happened. It was, I can see now, a bit like Wanda.
In 1970, Wanda was historic. It was the first feature film written, directed, and acted in by a woman. It was a low-budget picture ... Loden shot it with a crew of four including herself, and the only other professional actor in the film was Michael Higgins. It got some attention in Europe, winning Best Foreign Film at the 1970 Venice Film Festival. But it was mostly ignored in the States, and other than the occasional praise from film critics, it was little discussed.
There are many reasons for this, but it needs to be noted, as the film has finally been re-discovered, that even if Wanda had gotten more publicity at the time, it is unlikely it would have become a cultural icon the way other low-budget films of the day like Easy Rider did. For Wanda is aggressively uncommercial. Loden made the movie she wanted, and what she wanted was more a realistic slice of life than something like Bonnie and Clyde, to which it was compared (both being about robbers on the run). In one interview, she stated, “I really hate slick pictures…they’re too perfect to be believable. I don’t mean just in the look. I mean in the rhythm, in the cutting, the music—everything. The slicker the technique is, the slicker the content becomes, until everything turns into Formica, including the people.” Later, she called Wanda an “anti-Bonnie and Clyde” picture.
Wanda is an admirable movie. Loden does an excellent job in the title role, and the look and feel of the film helps create a perfect vision of a woman with no prospects. Wanda’s life is one of desperation, but she acts in an almost casual manner, as if her acceptance of her life precludes any active attempts to change it. Bonnie and Clyde is partly about the heroes' desire to make their mark on the world, to be famous. Wanda is completely uninterested in this. And, to the extent Loden achieves her goals, Wanda the movie also seems uninterested in making a mark. Or rather, Loden wants an audience, but only if they come to her ... she is not going to mess with her vision just for a bigger audience.
Which is why I call Wanda an “admirable” movie. It isn’t often that we get such a successful film in terms of fulfilling the artist’s desires. But Loden’s anti-slick stance doesn’t leave a lot of room for a viewer to climb in. I was reminded of some of Agnès Varda’s films, like Vagabond and Cleo from 5 to 7, but they don’t close off the audience as they tell the stories of the central characters. Loden makes Wanda into an impressively unique film, but unlike something like Cleo from 5 to 7, I don’t have any strong desire to watch Wanda again right away. Once is enough, at least for now.
Wanda should be seen. And Loden’s life is interesting on its own (a good way to dive into this is via Karina Longworth’s You Must Remember This podcast, which recently featured an episode on Loden as part of Longworth’s “Dead Blondes” series). #383 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 7/10.
Here’s an artifact of the times: Loden on The Mike Douglas Show, with Mike’s co-hosts, John and Yoko (the last few minutes are John and Yoko performing):
To give context to some of the questions, Loden's husband was Elia Kazan.
Jean Renoir’s peak was so great that it’s possible for the rest of his work to be a bit forgotten. There are hardly two better films than Grand Illusion and especially The Rules of the Game, both from the late-30s as Europe fell apart. Renoir ended up in Hollywood for a few years, and The Southerner is generally regarded as his best American film. That sounds like damning with faint praise, which is unfair, for if The Southerner is a notch below The Rules of the Game (as almost every movie is), it is still a rewarding look at a poor sharecropping family in Texas, remarkable for its matter-of-fact treatment of its characters. As usual, Renoir sidesteps being too judgmental with people ... there are no “bad guys”, just people who aren’t as good-natured as others. The farmers meet adversity, but it’s natural adversity ... the soil and the weather and the immense hard work necessary to grow things like cotton.
It is always clear that the farmers’ work is made more difficult by their lack of money, but Renoir doesn’t turn them into exaggerated stereotypes of the poor. They are just folks. He also refrains from turning the movie into a narrow screed. There is a social stance in the film, but it’s under the surface. As he often does, Renoir somehow manages to let us in on his own point of view without making it apparent.
Zachary Scott was an interesting choice for the male lead. He had only just begun in pictures, and his screen persona was formalized when he played a sleaze ball opposite Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce. But The Southerner came out the same year as Mildred Pierce, and perhaps contemporary audiences had less trouble seeing Scott as a farmer, at least, compared to those of us who think of sleaze when we think of Zachary Scott. In fact, Scott was from Texas, and he gives an authenticity to the picture ... he seems like he belongs with that land. Betty Field plays his wife ... I’m not sure why her career wasn’t bigger, but here, she is believable out in the fields with her husband. The same can’t be said for Beulah Bondi, in her mid-50s when the picture was made, but seemingly playing a granny in her 80s. Every thing she does is annoying, and she is in a lot of scenes. If Scott and Field underplay, Bondi makes up for it by chewing the scenery.
Renoir got an Oscar nomination for Best Director (the only one he ever received, although he did get an honorary award when he was in his 80s). He lost to Billy Wilder for The Lost Weekend. Robert Aldrich worked as an assistant director, one of his earliest credits. These days, Aldrich is known as the guy Alfred Molina played in Feud.
The Southerner is more than just a movie you ought to see. It’s worthy in its own right. 8/10.