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geezer cinema: parasite (bong joon ho, 2019)

It was my turn to pick a movie for Geezer Cinema, and it wasn't hard to choose ... I've been looking forward to Parasite for a long time. This is because I've become interested in recent Korean films, and Director Bong is probably my favorite, having seen five of his movies prior to Parasite and liking them all: Memories of Murder, The Host, Mother, Snowpiercer, and Okja. Parasite isn't like the others, but that itself is a bit of a Bong tradition, as is my response. When I look back at earlier reviews, I see I repeat myself time and again. As I wrote about Okja,

Even as his films test different genres, there is a consistency to the quality of his work.... If there's a problem with this consistency, it's that I am running out of things to say. But I was also prescient ... there is no telling what he'll do next ... Snowpiercer was a futuristic sci-fi dystopia; The Host was a monster movie; Memories was a procedural. And now Okja, an anti-corporation tale where the title character is a genetically-modified "super pig" and the main human character is a young Korean girl (played by Ahn Seo-hyun).

I'm not sure I can even reduce Parasite to a specific genre, which may be a sign that I liked it even more than the others. I'll avoid a spoiler here, but I'll nonetheless note that the film's title describes the movie, if you account for the twists that take Parasite into areas you didn't expect. It is a study in class, which is a common theme in Bong's films, perhaps most clearly in Snowpiercer. It features Song Kang-Ho, who has been in four of the Bong films I've seen. Parasite starts off as one kind of movie, almost a comedy, gradually and almost unnoticed takes a turn into another kind of movie, reflects on the notion of parasites, and somehow at the end you realize it was never just one kind of movie, but always all kinds of movies. It is constantly surprising, and Bong pulls off an interesting trick: you realize something is about to happen just before it happens, but not long before ... you don't think that birthday cake is going to be important until the moment when it becomes important.

And I haven't mentioned the house that is the center of much of the action. Here is an article (with spoilers) examining the work of Bong and production designer Lee Ha Jun creating "the year's best set".

the lighthouse (robert eggers, 2019)

I'm struggling with The Lighthouse. The critical consensus is mostly positive (83 score on Metacritic from 44 reviews, 41 positive, 1 mixed, 2 negative). In one of those two negative reviews, a highly entertaining MickLaSalle writes:

Directed and co-written by Robert Eggers, “The Lighthouse” was made as it was intended. To emphasize the claustrophobia, its aspect ratio is close to that of a square. It’s shot in a glossy black and white, which gives it a detached quality, allows for beautiful uses of moonlight and shadow, and makes the characters played by Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson seem mythic, archetypal. It places two men in a difficult environment and pits them in a psychological duel.

Doesn't sound so bad, does it? And I have often spoken of movies that weren't made for me, that are "as intended", that succeed on their own attempts, but which I don't connect with. The Lighthouse is one of those, and over the years, I have felt more kindly to such movies, even when I don't like them.

Somehow, though, The Lighthouse inspired real hatred from me. I can't just tip my cap to Robert Eggers and move on, because watching The Lighthouse was a real chore. As I watched, I couldn't shake the notion that what Eggers intended was to piss off the audience, and not in any useful way. Clearly, critics felt otherwise, so YMMV. But damn, this movie sucked.

Returning to LaSalle: "Eggers fails to give us the one thing that might have sustained an audience’s interest over the course of 109 excruciating minutes: a compelling story. He gives us nothing even close to one." This isn't a case of Eggers rejecting narrative in favor of something else. It's Eggers rubbing our faces in the aforementioned psychological duel, without making us care about the participants.

One last visit with LaSalle:

Imagine you having dinner with a smelly, gassy loudmouth with a fake-sounding Irish accent. That’s exactly how fun it is to watch someone else have dinner with a smelly, gassy loudmouth with a fake-sounding Irish accent. And that’s just one dinner. But wait, there’s more. There are countless dinner scenes.

Do Dafoe and Pattinson give good performances? I suppose so, but who gives a shit? The Lighthouse features interesting stylistic decisions in the service of nothing.

only angels have wings (howard hawks, 1939)

Not the best Howard Hawks, but still better than many movies out there. Cary Grant is Cary Grant, although not perfectly aligned with our image of him. As Kael wrote in her great essay on Grant, "The Man from Dream City", Grant and screwball comedies were made for each other. "His performances in screwball comedies—particularly The Awful Truth, in 1937, his twenty-ninth picture—turned him into the comedian-hero that people think of as Cary Grant." Bringing Up Baby was 1938, His Girl Friday was 1940. But Only Angels Have Wings comes in the midst of all that screwball, and he isn't quite the comedian-hero this time. It's a nice turn, appealing, and there's nothing wrong with stretching a bit, but it is slightly discombobulating when we keep waiting for Grant to do something screwy in Only Angels Have Wings. Jean Arthur reportedly struggled with Hawks' ideas on how her character should be played, and it is true, she is not the typical "Hawksian woman". She is also overshadowed a bit by Rita Hayworth. Hayworth only had a supporting part, and she was nowhere near Arthur at the time in terms of audience recognition ... she was only two years past being billed as "Rita Cansino". Only Angels Have Wings was the beginning of her breakout, and she already has star quality, even though she's doing very little. Meanwhile, there are the usual Hawks tropes: communities of men doing their jobs, feisty women (although again, Arthur wasn't quite Rosalind Russell or Angie Dickinson). There's even a version of the line that turns up frequently in Hawks' films: in this case, it's "I'm hard to get, Geoff. All you have to do is ask me." This was repeated (by Lauren Bacall) in To Have and Have Not, while in Rio Bravo, Angie Dickinson said, "You’re gonna have to say you want me." Perhaps it's no coincidence that all three movies were written or co-written by Jules Furthman.

music friday: western stars (thom zimny and bruce springsteen, 2019)

The simplest thing to say from a consumer guide perspective is that if you love Bruce, you'll like this movie. If you love his latest album, you'll love this movie. If you don't have an opinion about Bruce Springsteen, I'm not sure what you'll think, but it will give you insight into a 70-year-old rocker who still has a lot to say.

There are two things to address here. One is the music. At its core, Western Stars is a concert movie, where Bruce and a large band play the songs from the Western Stars album. He has a huge string section, and they kick ass ... their unison playing gives the songs something of a Phil Spector feel. As is often the case with Bruce, the songs benefit from being played live. Favorite songs are even better, songs I didn't much care for are better than I thought. If you're looking for familiar faces, you'll find Patti and Soozie and Charles and Lisa. The music sounds great played in Bruce's old barn.

The other thing is the movie-as-movie. There is no escaping the fact that the songs, and their performance, are what matters. But it's a gorgeous movie, from the way the inside of the barn is lit to the wide-open spaces of Joshua Tree. The brief commentary that accompanies the songs is just enough to expand our appreciation. It's hard to find anything to fault in Western Stars as a movie.

I don't know if a newcomer to Bruce would be convinced by this film. Emotionally, the songs represent a culmination of his life's work, but the music is different from his usual, and I don't suppose you should start here. But for long-time fans, the movie adds greatly to the album. The intimacy is lovely and rewarding.

six (2006-2019)

Earlier this month, we put our kitty Six to sleep. She had tummy problems pretty much since the day we got her, and while we tried a few times to take her to the vet, she was so hostile they couldn't even take her temperature. It was a very gradual process ... she lived almost 13 years ... but Robin started noticing that she was getting worse, having trouble jumping on the couch, things like that.

She was probably the most bizarre cat we ever had, so as Robin pointed out, we have lots of memories of things that she did. She didn't take much to others ... our grandson calls her "The Bad Cat" ... but she loved us, and that's good enough.

Her sister Boomer and her arch enemy Starbuck are still around to fill our cat-related lives, which is good.

Image9   IMG_0493

geezer cinema: ad astra (james gray, 2019)

Geezer Cinema returns after a three-week absence. (Geezer Cinema is my wife and I, both retired, seeing a movie every week, taking turns picking the film.)

My brother saw Ad Astra a few weeks ago. He didn't like it. He wrote, "Very slow moving. The father/son relationship isn't gripping. The film 'Gravity' set a high bar for cinematography in space, and this film doesn't come close to that bar."

I replied that I pretty much agreed with everything he said, but that I liked the movie.

Yes, Ad Astra is slow moving, but over the years, I've become more tolerant of that. I didn't care much about the father/son dynamic, either, and agree that this movie is no Gravity. But Gravity is one of my favorite movies, winner of seven Oscars, and if Ad Astra doesn't measure up, there is still plenty of room for it to be good.

Brad Pitt is the best thing about the movie. I've seen a lot of his movies, and he's hard to figure. He's been in some films I really didn't like (hello, Seven), and some films I liked a lot where he was a supporting character (Thelma & Louise, 12 Years a Slave). When he's the star, it's a mixed bag (Inglourious Basterds, World War Z). Ad Astra is somewhere between those two movies, not as good as Basterds, better than World War Z. But this might be Pitt's best performance in the lead. At the least, he carries the movie even if the rest is something less than great. (And when I say less than great, I'm talking in part about the roles played by Liv Tyler and Ruth Negga ... both are wasted.)

film fatales #63: daughters of the dust (julie dash, 1991)

This is the latest film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20", "A 33 week long challenge where the goal each week is to watch a previously unseen feature length film from a specified category." Week 7 is called "Director Recommendations: Spike Lee Week":

Though some may consider Spike Lee divisive and controversial, his devotion and contributions to cinema cannot be denied. Though he does have quite a few words to say on different directors, usually on the critical side, he made it a point to make a list of films he deems important for anyone looking to make films, and that's what we'll be looking at this week.

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen film from Spike Lee's list of Essential Films All Aspiring Directors Need to Watch.

It's easy to see why Spike Lee finds this movie essential. It was the first feature film directed by an African-American woman that was distributed theatrically in the United States. Dash had a lot of trouble getting it made, eventually bringing it in for under a million dollars. The end result makes a case for independence ... Daughters of the Dust showcases a culture that has been mostly ignored in mainstream films, and Dash holds nothing back, playing with time/narrative, making the movie as authentic to the Gullah as possible, and foregrounding women characters without demonizing the men. Most of the people both in front of and behind the camera were African-American.

All of this could be a confusing mess, and Dash does expect her audience to follow along at her pace rather than ours. But even if occasional instances are confusing, there is an overriding feel for the culture that brings everything together.

The actors are well-chosen for their faces, and Dash's ability to get the most out of those faces. The actors are not amateurs, though ... they may be unknown to me, but they are professionals who add to the documentary feel of some of the movie by blending in seamlessly with the ambiance.

This was Dash's first fictional feature, and despite the critical acclaim, she hasn't been able to make more. She is quite busy directing television, including a biopic about Rosa Parks and episodes of the series Queen Sugar. And Daughters of the Dust lives on within the people who have seen it ... Beyoncé was influenced by the film when she made Lemonade.

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)

what i watched

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman, 2018). I waited too long to watch this movie. It got critical raves, and won the Oscar for Best Animated Feature, but I'm not a huge Marvel fan, not a huge Spider-Man fan, not a huge fan of animated features that don't come from Miyazaki. Plus, my wife, who is a fan of the Marvel movies, is the one who usually takes me to see them, and this one didn't interest her.

Well, I've finally seen it, and it is every bit as good as people said. Endlessly inventive and full of surprises. I guess fans of the comics weren't as surprised as I, who hadn't read any of the related versions. They knew that the Spider-Verse featured multiple versions of Spider-Man ... I was unspoiled and thus amazed.

Into the Spider-Verse is a bit like if Philip K. Dick had written a Marvel book. We get at least two Spider-Mans, a Spider-Woman, a Spider-Man Noir, even Spider-Ham ("Peter Porker"). Each has distinguishing characteristics, and not just visually ... time is taken to give depth to each character. It's an ambitious movie, but those ambitions are extended beyond the usual spectacle to include a human element.

I've often wondered if the use of big name stars is a good thing for animation. There are so many great voice actors out there that deserve the work. Nonetheless, there are some excellent voices here, a tribute to the actors and/or the person in charge of casting the film (Mary Hidalgo is her name). Not all of them were megastars ... Nicolas Cage plays Spider-Man Noir, and Mahershala Ali and his two Oscars have an important role, but they are outliers in cast with folks like Brian Tyree Henry, Kimiko Glenn, and Kathryn Hahn. (Stan Lee even manages to work in his last cameo.) 

Champions of Into the Spider-Verse were right. To use a cliché, it's not just a good animated film, it's a very good film, period. Fans of Marvel will like it. People who don't often take in superhero movies will like it. I liked it.

Mystery Train (Jim Jarmusch, 1989). Slowly but surely, I am working my way through the films of Jim Jarmusch. One thing I've noticed is how consistent he is ... I've given the same rating to every one I've seen (Down by Law, Broken Flowers, Only Lovers Left Alive). Mystery Train is no different. Jarmusch has a style, one that is recognizable and influential. Jarmusch is not intimidated by a low budget (under $3 million for Mystery Train). He doesn't rush things, and cinematographer Robby Müller, a frequent Jarmusch collaborator, ensures that Mystery Train looks wonderful, even when showing us the scuzzier sides of Memphis. There is nothing accidental here.

There are a lot of characters in Mystery Train, and Jarmusch and the actors make those characters memorable. The main narrative is broken into three segments that are marginally connected in terms of plot, but perhaps more connected by theme. Of course, Elvis is the key connector. Two young Japanese tourists come to Memphis to see Graceland. An Italian woman has a vision of The King in her cheap motel room. Joe Strummer's character is nicknamed "Elvis" for his sideburns, if nothing else. And Memphis is a character, as well.

The cast seems like a gimmick, until you realize that Screamin' Jay Hawkins gives arguably the best performance in the film (certainly the most enjoyable), that Joe Strummer makes a fine tortured man dumped by his woman, that many in the cast are connected to others we know (Cinqué Lee is Spike's brother, Nicoletta Braschi is married to Roberto Benigni, who appeared in Down by Law, Elizabeth Bracco is Lorraine's sister) and all are good.

music friday: steve miller

[Edited to add: it's Chuck Berry's birthday!]
Steve Miller has a new box set out, Welcome to the Vault. It includes plenty of rarities, and is a fine package for fans.
This isn't the first such effort from Miller. In 1994, he released a box set so inclusive it had a conversation between a 5-year-old Miller and Les Paul.
But despite the kitchen sink approach to these two anthologies, one track has yet to make the cut: "Your Old Lady" from the soundtrack to Revolution. Since some of us believe that song features Miller's all-time greatest geetar blast, its absence is odd.
When I complained about this on Twitter, my brother noted that one live track, "Super Shuffle", included many of the hottest licks from Miller's "Your Old Lady" solos. "Super Shuffle is taken from Monterey Pop. You can see an excerpt here (not sure it will play if you aren't a subscriber to the Criterion site):
Looking around, I found a couple of promo videos from 1968, apparently connected to the band's first single. The A-side is "Roll with It" from Children of the Future:

The B-side was "Sittin' in Circles", written by Barry Goldberg, perhaps most famous for playing in Bob Dylan's backup band for the infamous "Dylan Goes Electric" performance at the Newport Folk Festival. Goldberg and Miller first met up in Chicago in the mid-60s. Goldberg was also a member of The Electric Flag. Goldberg recorded this song himself at least once, and it was on the first Electric Flag album. This video is introduced by an old friend:

Finally, the version of "It Hurts Me Too" on Welcome to the Vault is from Chuck Berry Live at Fillmore Auditorium. I've had that album for a long time ... it was re-released with a few extra tracks awhile back. They're all on Spotify. While I can't specify the date ... that album was recorded during a long stand by Berry with Miller's band as backup, and I can't remember which of the shows we saw, nor am I sure which ones ended up on that album.

Bonus: for the billionth time, I'll add "Your Old Lady" to this blog: