what i watched last week

The Face of Another (Hiroshi Teshigahara, 1966). The original Japanese title is Tanin no kao; an alternate English title is I Have a Stranger’s Face. The basic plot is reminiscent of sci-fi films both good and bad: man’s face is completely burned, a doctor (in this case a psychiatrist) offers to perform an experimental technique to graft a copy of another’s face onto the man, complications ensue. In this movie, though, subtexts are brought to the surface. In a cheapie movie, we would have to extract subtext from the cheesy movie, but Teshigahara is up to something serious here, and he’s not worried about hiding it where we can’t find it. So the psychiatrist is openly fascinated by the experiment ... he expects that the man will struggle mightily to maintain his sense of self once he starts wearing the mask, and he has no apparent qualms about this. The man does indeed start to question his identity. Meanwhile, he seduces his wife (wearing his mask so she won’t recognize him), then accuses her of infidelity when she succumbs to the seduction. Not quite, she says ... she knew it was him all along under the mask. While all of this is going on, a separate tale is told of a beautiful woman who’s face is only partially scarred. No attempt is made to connect the two stories. It seems like a mess, but a planned mess ... I might have been confused, but I never felt that Teshigahara was confused, if that makes sense. The look of the film adds to the slight otherworldly feel. The doctor’s office in particular reminded me of THX 1138, although obviously if any influence occurred, it would have been in the opposite direction. Rewarding and creepy. 8/10.

Spectre (Sam Mendes, 2015). With certain exceptions, James Bond movies can be grouped according to the actor playing the lead. Spectre is the fourth Daniel Craig Bond, and in the future, when we look back, we will think of all four movies as one. This isn’t to say they are all the same ... Casino Royale put 007 on a new direction, and it was one of the two or three best-ever Bonds. But after four Craigs, it is clear that while Casino Royale is a different kind of movie than Die Another Day, the final Pierce Brosnan Bond that preceded Royale, the other Daniel Craig movies are essentially variations on the Bond introduced in Craig’s first appearance. Spectre may recall earlier 007s, particularly the ones with Sean Connery where SPECTRE the organization plays a part in the proceedings, but ultimately, it is tied far more closely to the previous three films, especially Skyfall. No one has had the nerve to really break free from Bond conventions, and in that way, the films are all somewhat alike. But I’m starting to think it more useful to look at the subgenre level: not at the group of James Bond movies, but rather at the groups of Sean Connery Bonds, Roger Moore Bonds, Timothy Dalton Bonds, Pierce Brosnan Bonds, and Daniel Craig Bonds, respectively. (This omits the goofy 1960s version of Casino Royale, which is no loss, and also neglects to find room for On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, one of the very best James Bond movies but with the problematic George Lazenby as Bond.) If you were to make a list of all the Bond movies from best to worst ... well, this has been done many times. But I’m suggesting we first make a list of the actors (this has also been done many times), and then order the films by each actor. The question isn’t whether Spectre is as good as, say, Diamonds Are Forever. The question is, instead, a two-parter: where does Daniel Craig fit into your appraisal of the various Bonds, and how does Spectre compare to the other Daniel Craigs. Since I’m the one writing here, I’ll offer my lists. For Bonds, either Craig or Connery are at the top, and Moore is at the bottom (well, Lazenby is at the bottom, but I don’t think even the best Moore Bond film, The Spy Who Loved Me, is as good as OHMSS). I have a fondness for Dalton’s version of Bond, especially in Licence to Kill, but I think Daniel Craig offers a stronger version of what Dalton offered. Anyway ... for the Craigs, I’d order them best-to-not-best: Casino Royale, Skyfall, Spectre, Quantum of Solace. For what it’s worth, though, when I made my Fifty Favorite Movies lists a few years ago, the only James Bond movie on the list was Tomorrow Never Dies, because of Michelle Yeoh. Which gets back to my comment that some Bond conventions will never be broken ... otherwise, Michelle Yeoh would have become the New Jane Bond. 7/10. (Another FWIW note: I had an essay published in an anthology about Bond, where my topic was The Best Bond Villain. My choice was Klaus Maria Brandauer in the non-canonical Connery, Never Say Never Again. If Michelle Yeoh suggested what might have happened if Bond was a woman, Brandauer suggested what might have happened if Bond was a villain.) (One last note: the publicity made a big deal of Monica Bellucci being the oldest-ever Bond Girl. Leaving aside the silliness of calling Monica Bellucci a girl, I'm going to offer a spoiler. Bellucci is on the screen for maybe five minutes.)

blu-ray series #27: my neighbor totoro (hayao miyazaki, 1988)

I was introduced to Miyazaki some years ago, and took to his work instantly. I usually watched his films alone, and I don’t recall ever watching one with a kid. So when I decided to re-watch Totoro on Blu-ray, I was glad to have a ten-year-old with me. He wasn’t really looking forward to it ... he wanted to watch a Star Wars movie, and he hadn’t ever heard of Totoro. I don’t think it quite succeeded with him, either ... after fifteen minutes he was already expressing his boredom, and later he said that nothing made sense, which is why he didn’t like it. Still, he made it to the end of the movie.

We watched the Disney English-language dub, which I hadn’t heard before. I didn’t really recognize any of the voices, including the stunt-casting of Dakota and Elle Fanning as sisters. It was fine, in any event ... I think I only notice English dubs when they are terrible. I liked the movie as much as ever, even with the semi-negative vibes in the room. I think Princess Mononoke is my favorite Miyazaki film, but to be honest, they all kind of blend together in my mind as the years pass, so I couldn’t really explain my preference. My fondest memories are of Spirited Away, probably because I love the soot thingies. Even the lesser movies are enjoyable, though, and often quite loony. #235 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 9/10.

what i watched last week

Short Term 12 (Destin Daniel Cretton, 2013). Brie Larson is a revelation. The cast is full of people you might remember from TV series: John Gallagher Jr. (The Newsroom), Stephanie Beatriz (Brooklyn Nine-Nine), Rami Malek (Mr. Robot), Kaitlyn Dever (Justified, among others), Melora Walters (Big Love). Everyone is fine, but Larson shines over them all. The treatment of troubled teenagers is mostly honest, and when it gets too melodramatic, there’s always Larson to fall back on. Do you get the feeling I liked Larson in this movie? (Oh yeah, she’s another ex-TV person: United States of Tara.) #579 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century. 8/10.

Beyond the Lights (Gina Prince-Bythewood, 2014). 7/10.

film fatales #8: beyond the lights (gina prince-bythewood, 2014)

This is the first Prince-Bythewood film I’ve seen (among her other work are Love and Basketball and The Secret Life of Bees). She wrote the script for this, too, so it’s very much her production. The basic plot has something of a by-the-numbers feel ... young singer rises to the top, struggles with the lesser side of stardom, falls for a policeman, the usual. Toss in a mom who drives the daughter to succeed and you’ve got a movie. Prince-Bythewood does a nice job of showing things from the singer’s perspective, and there’s some good “beefcake is fair play” with Nate Parker, who looks like the former college wrestler he was whenever he takes off his shirt.

Mostly, Prince-Bythewood gets out the actors’ way and lets them show their stuff, which is a tricky move, since the plot turns are often melodramatic, which could take over the film. But nothing is going to get in the way of Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who dominates the picture as the rising star, singing her own parts, giving a complex read of a character who is by turns confident, scared, and empty.

Minnie Driver does the Evil Mom with style, and Danny Glover, as the policeman’s dad, is properly subdued. But it’s Mbatha-Raw’s show. She’s the reason to watch. Other than her, there’s nothing special here. 7/10.

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)

blu-ray series #26: shake!: otis at monterey (d.a. pennebaker, 1987)

I thought I’d watch Monterey Pop again, after finding out that Dusty Baker was in attendance at the festival. Turned out my disc was unplayable, so I stuck in the supplemental disc and watched this short, which includes Otis Redding’s complete set.

The only Otis album I had as a teenager was Live in Europe, which I wore out from constant playing. I have always slept with the radio on, and I can recall a night in December of 1967 when I awoke to the sounds of Side Two of this album, in its entirety. It was the middle of the night, and there I was, figuratively jumping around in my bed to the music. After the songs were over, the DJ informed us that Otis had died in a plane crash. I made up for his loss by burying myself in Live in Europe. My favorite track was the last one, “Try a Little Tenderness”, which built from a soulful beginning to a frantic ending. After a false ending, you can hear the emcee pleading, “Help me, help me, release me, we’ve got to hear some more of Otis!”, after which Otis returned for a coda. In 2015, it’s easy to check YouTube and find this was the standard Otis performance of this song, but back then I had no idea. I knew “Try a Little Tenderness” was a favorite song of my Mom’s, probably in the Sinatra version, and I played her Otis one day. She was unimpressed, said he got the meaning of the song wrong ... it was OK at first, but it was about tenderness, and there was nothing tender about how Otis concluded things.

In the Monterey Pop movie, Otis was seen performing “Shake” and “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long”. He was great, but I was disappointed at the absence of “Tenderness”. A couple of years later, an album was released featuring Otis’ Monterey set, along with Hendrix on the flipside, and there I got to finally hear the Monterey Tenderness. If anything, it was more raw than the Europe version. At the time, I preferred the one I’d grown up with, although in retrospect, I don’t think it matters. One thing that did make an impression, and does to this day, is when Otis leaves the stage for the last time after saying, “I got to go now and I don’t wanna go.” He was dead six months later. It’s like at the end of “Mountain Jam” by the Allman Brothers, when Duane introduces the band, finishing with “I’m Duane Allman, thank you!”, and every time I think about him dying.

Somewhere along the line, my favorite Otis Redding song changed to “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long”. For one thing, the studio version is almost as good as the live versions, which isn’t true of “Tenderness”. It is the pinnacle of the soulful side of Otis Redding. It was featured in the original Monterey Pop movie, and it is the highlight of Shake! as well.

The disc comes with a good interview with Phil Walden, Otis’ manager (coincidentally, he was integral to the success of the Allmans, as well). Walden talks about the early days of Redding’s career, speaks with great love for the man. Peter Guralnick does two commentaries, one of which I listened to, where he discusses each song as Otis sings it. Both Walden and Guralnick try to put Redding’s Monterey appearance in the context of both Otis’ career and the crossing of soul music with the psychedelic audience. It is one of the great moments in Monterey Pop, when Otis takes the stage, after midnight and with rain beginning to pour down, and within a handful of seconds has that tired psychedelic audience completely fired up:

Shake! suffers from the camerawork, although the sound is now excellent. Pennebaker must not have had useful footage of “Tenderness” ... until near the end, he gives us shots of various women, which isn’t so bad, but you want to see Otis. The music is a 10, but this short film is a bit lacking, for the reasons just mentioned. 8/10.

by request: the 100-year-old man who climbed out the window and disappeared (felix herngren, 2013)

We were sitting around at a family dinner, and a cousin mentioned seeing this movie and liking it. None of us had even heard of it, so I put in on my request list and sure enough, it turned up on Amazon.

It’s a Swedish comedy, although it’s a slightly perverse comedy, and I’m not talking about sex. In the USA, it got an “R” rating, and again, we’re not talking sex. Nor are we talking about the kind of explicit gore you find in some movies nowadays. Instead, the violence, and in fact the movie in general, is reminiscent of Fargo. There’s a decapitation (and we see the head), there’s a guy who freezes to death, there’s a guy who gets squashed by an elephant.

The humor is also Fargo-esque, with few laugh-out-loud moments but plenty of cute stuff that is made more tolerable by the elephant squashing etc. Robert Gustafsson plays the title character ... how often do you see a movie where a middle-aged actor plays someone more than twice his age? Gustafsson is apparently very highly regarded in Sweden as a funnyman. The film is based on a best-selling novel ... the movie itself was a huge hit in Sweden.

Oftentimes comedies like this don’t translate well, and I’m sure there are jokes I, as an American, don’t get. But the general concept is enjoyable, even amiable when people aren’t being frozen to death. Besides reminding me of Fargo, there’s a Forrest Gump/Zelig angle going on. Through flashbacks, we find that the 100-year-old man met Franco, met Oppenheimer, met Truman, met Stalin, met Einstein’s idiot brother ... you get the idea. He spends a lot of time drinking with these various people. While he left school at an early age, his love of explosives and blowing things up means he has some useful advice for Oppenheimer on the Manhattan Project.

I can see why my cousin liked this movie. I didn’t think it was anything special, but it was different, especially since I didn’t know the book. It was a bit more than a pleasant time-waster. It’s certainly better than that vile Forrest Gump. 7/10.

what i watched last week

Ace in the Hole (Billy Wilder, 1951). Unrelentingly cynical. Man gets trapped in cave, everyone acts poorly. Kirk Douglas plays a reporter who sees a big story that will return him to past glories. Jan Sterling as the victim’s wife is straight out of film noir, bad and spiteful. The masses are spectacle-seeking sheep. Local entrepreneurs see a chance for a quick buck. Spike Lee loves this movie, which is irrelevant but he does a short piece on the Blu-ray. It bombed at the box office ... apparently audiences didn’t want to pay to find out they were idiots. Its reputation among critics fluctuates ... right now it’s #739 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 7/10.

August: Osage County (John Wells, 2013). In which a bunch of solid movie actors take on a Pulitzer-Prize winning play by Tracy Letts. The best part of the movie is the contrasting acting styles of the various players. Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts get the most showy roles, but while Streep wallows in the possibilities, Roberts holds back and picks her spots. Street is more obviously acting ... whether she is the better of the two is up for grabs (they both got Oscar nominations). Sam Shepard acts in the time-honored Sam Shepard style. Most of the other male actors follow suit (not by keeping to their own style, but by emulating Sam Shepard). Chris Cooper gets to have the one showy blow-up scene. I’m not the one to evaluate family dramas with bad mothers, so YMMV. Oh, some people say this is a comedy. I missed that. Trivia note: the three sisters are played by Julia (Roberts), Julianne (Nicholson), and Juliette (Lewis). #733 on the TSPDT 21st-century list. 6/10.

Bug (William Friedkin, 2006). It’s a Tracy Letts Film Festival! We watched this on Halloween night ... we like Ashley Judd, and we figured a movie called Bug with Michael Shannon must be scary. That was our first mistake. Bug eventually gets around to the horror, although “scary” isn’t the word I would use. I liked the homage to Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly ... Shannon spends the second half of the movie convinced that aphids are crawling all over him. This would probably be better if you didn’t stuff it into a horror category ... it’s a film of a stage play, and it has some kind of artistic intentions that prevent it from offering cheesy enjoyment (we had watched the pilot of Ash vs. Evil Dead earlier in the day, and again, that’s unfair, but this movie could have been better if Bruce Campbell had played the Michael Shannon role and Sam Raimi had directed instead of William Friedkin). If you are in the mood for a talky actors’ showcase ... well, August: Osage County was just as good in that department. Harry Connick Jr. is the best thing in the movie. 6/10.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 (Francis Lawrence, 2014). Be careful what you ask for. While I liked the first Hunger Games movie, I wanted more socio-cultural stuff. I liked the first half of the sequel, which did have more of that “stuff”, but eventually we got another episode of the Games, so I was only half-fulfilled. Well, here’s part 3 (or part 3 – part 1, or part 3a), and guess what I missed? Action scenes. Mockingjay 1 really delves into the structures of the society and the need for revolution from below ... the film makers even skip the Games entirely, which I wouldn’t have thought possible. But I didn’t find much to like about the “good guys” ... this isn’t going to really be a revolution from below, the Good Guys think they have to manipulate the masses and want to use an Icon named Katniss to bend those masses to their wills. I haven’t read the books, so I don’t know if ultimately the people will become something more than tools. In the meantime, there’s Jennifer Lawrence, who remains better than the rest of the movies, although she isn’t given as many opportunities to show why this time around. And, given that her entire reason for taking action is because she loves Peeta, I can’t help noting once again that the guys are all drips and Lawrence should dump all their asses ... she doesn’t need them. This sounds like a complete diss, but I’ve liked all of these movies. I just wish I loved them. For the third time in a row, 7/10. And once again, I’ll recommend Battle Royale for an alternate version of the same story. It’s not better, just different. (And not rated, while the Hunger Games movies are carefully PG-13.)

what i watched last week

Ivan’s Childhood (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1962). Criterion was featuring Soviet Cinema on Hulu, so I thought I’d dip my toes in the Tarkovsky waters. (Actually, I saw Solaris back in the 70s ... hated it, although I can’t remember anything about it except it was really long and I was bored.) Ivan’s Childhood (called My Name Is Ivan in the USA for a long time) was Tarkovsky’s first feature, and while I can’t compare it to his consensus classics from later in his career, I can say that it was relatively easy to follow, came in at a decent 95 minutes, and had a great performance from teenager Nikolay Burlyaev as Ivan. The B&W imagery from cinematographer Vadim Yusov is magnificent. The film came during the “Khrushchev Thaw”, one of many Soviet pictures that were relatively personal and less dogmatic than earlier Soviet films. I can’t say Ivan’s Childhood makes me want to binge-watch Tarkovsky movies ... I have a feeling it’s not very typical of his other films. But I liked this one. #361 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 8/10.

Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (Chantal Akerman, 1975). 9/10.

o.j. simpson never sleeps

This is going to be one of the most confounding “My Memory Is Failing” moments in awhile.

Well, actually since I have some concrete evidence, the only thing I don’t remember is ...

I’m getting ahead of myself.

I took my son Neal to his first football game 27 years ago today, October 22, 1978. The 49ers, who were just awful that year (they finished 2-14) hosted the Falcons at Candlestick, and if memory serves the tickets were given to us by a season ticket holder who couldn’t take the team’s poor performance any more. You might wonder why I remember the exact date I took him ... it’s funny, earlier that year I’d taken him to his first baseball game, and it’s easy to go back and find the date, because at his first game, we saw John Tamargo hit a triple. Since he only hit one triple in his major league career, it’s not hard to find the game where it happened. Similarly, we saw the 49ers take and early 7-0 lead when O.J. Simpson ran for a touchdown. It was his only TD of the season.

I have another memory, and once again, it’s easy to find the date. Robin and I went to see Neil Young and Crazy Horse at the Cow Palace. It was the show Young later used for the concert film Rust Never Sleeps. He only played one night at the Cow Palace on that tour, so it’s not like we went to a different show.

And yes, the date was October 22, 1978.

I remember OJ’s touchdown. I remember the Neil Young concert. But I’ll be damned if I remember them happening on the same day.

Here’s “Like a Hurricane” from that show:

film fatales #7: jeanne dielman, 23, quai du commerce, 1080 bruxelles (chantal akerman, 1975)

I admit to some trepidation as I approached this film, which runs for 3 hours and 21 minutes and which, to the best of my knowledge coming in, consisted mostly of a woman doing dishes and making dinner. A friend said I shouldn’t be scared, just set some time aside and take it in, and it turns out she was right. I might have taken 4 hours to watch it ... there are a couple of convenient places where a break can be taken without doing too much damage to the film. But watch it I did, and it is very impressive.

So much of what Akerman and cinematographer Babette Mangolte present seems off-putting. There is no camera movement ... once the camera is placed, we see only what it sees until a new shot begins. Akerman doesn’t rely much on quick cuts, either, so Jeanne Dielman is static for much of its running time. Which doesn’t mean “nothing happens”, but the audience is forced to slow down to the pace of the film. At one point, I imagined my wife at a baseball game ... she’s not a fan, she finds it boring ... if she had to watch a 3 hour and 21 minute game, she might try to find something to grab her attention, but eventually I’d guess she’d just give up. You will be tempted to give up on Jeanne Dielman if you decide to watch it. And I wouldn’t blame you at all if you did decide you had better things to do.

But the boredom is necessary, as is the length of the film. The boredom is cumulative (which is another reason why a person might want to avoid it) ... you are more bored after half an hour than you are at the beginning, more bored after an hour than you were thirty minutes before. Much of the boredom is due to the repetitive nature of Jeanne’s life. She makes breakfast, wakes up her son, makes and drinks coffee, sees her son off to school, cleans house, goes shopping, entertains clients at home (she works on what seems to be a part-time basis as a prostitute), cleans up some more, makes dinner, welcomes her son when he returns from school, eats dinner with him, puts him to bed, goes to bed herself, and gets up the next morning to make breakfast again. She is very compulsive, always turning lights off when she leaves a room, then turning them on again when she returns. Her coats are perhaps the most interesting aspect of her compulsions. There’s a housecoat she puts on when she gets out of bed. There’s a coat-length kind of apron that she wears when she’s got good clothes on and wants to make sure they don’t get dirty. She has a coat she wears when she leaves the house. And every time she puts on a coat, she buttons all of the buttons, and when she takes it off, she unbuttons all of the buttons and hangs the coat up. The buttoning gets annoying after awhile ... OK, we get the point, she’s compulsive, do we have to watch the entire process every single time?

And then, in one scene in the second half of the movie, she forgets to do one of the buttons. It has about the same impact on the audience as Norman Bates turning up in the shower with a knife. I worried I was going to spend the rest of the movie wondering about that button, but luckily, her son notices, saying “your button” ... she fixes it, to the relief of everyone.

As the boredom accumulates, our understanding of Jeanne also accumulates. For whatever reason, she is defined by her routine. The film is broken into three segments, each showing us a day in her life, and by Day Three, you know that she is different. But if you started watching at that point, you might not notice anything was wrong at all. The differences are subtle, and the only way you can spot them is if you’ve been paying attention the first two days. I won’t say she’s going crazy ... whatever plagues her, it was there before we meet her, so “going” isn’t the right word. But once you see how she is changing, you realize what came before was far more troubled than you might have thought. Her insistence on routine is no longer quirky ... now it’s a sign that she is barely holding things together.

My favorite line came after the Potato Scene. She puts potatoes on to boil, but neglects them for too long. She throws them out, then finds she only has one potato left, so she goes back to the store and buys a bag of potatoes. When she returns, she starts peeling the potatoes, but she no longer has the obsessive precision we have seen previously. She seems frustrated by the potatoes, she stops and starts ... something is clearly wrong. Her son comes home and notes that her hair is a mess. She replies, “I let the potatoes cook too long.” I’d say it was the funniest line in the movie, if it wasn’t so obviously sad.

Delphine Seyrig as Jeanne is, to my mind, the best and most important thing about the film. It’s Akerman’s idea, and Mangolte has a strong effect on the finished product. But Seyrig is given an impossible task: to portray a woman (who is on screen for virtually the entire 201 minutes) who puts on an armor to prevent us from seeing the “real” her inside the shell, but gradually giving us peeks at what is going on in her head. The differences are subtle ... like I say, if you hadn’t already watched her for two hours, you might not notice right away that she was faltering by that third hour. This isn’t Carrie Mathison, leaping from one side of her bi-polarness to the other, always getting our attention (and ensuring that Claire Danes will always have Emmy-winning material). As Seyrig plays it, Jeanne is more like Edith Scob in Eyes Without a Face. Jeanne’s face is nearly as inexpressive as Scob’s Christiane, only Seyrig isn’t wearing a mask. She’s acting. And as the movie goes on and on, it is Seyrig that gives us the gradual, if minimal, progress in Jeanne’s life.

Jeanne Dielman let the potatoes cook too long, and that was one of the most important events in the movie. At the beginning, you can’t believe you’ll still be watching 3 1/2 hours later. But by the time she over-cooked those potatoes, they had me. #90 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 9/10.

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)