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a woman's face (gustaf molander, 1938)

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 12 is called "Classic Performers: Ingrid Bergman":

A major name in both American and European cinema, Ingrid Bergman is often considered one of the greatest performers to have ever graced the screen. From notable American classics like Casablanca and Spellbound to her work with Roberto Rossellini in Italian neorealist mainstays such as Stromboli and Europa '51, Bergman filled the screen with emotion that is hard to be matched.

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen film starring Ingrid Bergman.

In 1936, Molander and Bergman worked together on the original Intermezzo. Two years later, at 23, Bergman was in A Woman's Face, a silly bit of nonsense, from a French play, about a woman with a scarred face who changes from a bad person to a good one when she receives an operation that turns her face into Ingrid Bergman's. You have to admire the dedication it took to make Ingrid Bergman ugly for a good portion of the picture.

Ingridface

Bergman does an excellent job of turning her ugliness (she was burned in a fire as a child) outward into a life of crime in a blackmail ring. She also does what she can to make her transition from bad to good seem believable ... it's almost matter-of-fact in the script, but Bergman makes the change gradual and she connects emotionally with the audience. It's also fun to see how Bergman is allowed to be physically big ... at times she seems like the tallest person in the room, and even when her face is disfigured, she commands the screen. It's interesting how the "ugly" woman is always trying to hide her face but uses her body to dominate.

Remade in English a few years later with Joan Crawford.


music friday: the ghost of tom joad

On this date in 1995, we saw the first of two Bruce shows on the Tom Joad tour. Here is what a few of the songs sounded like. First, "The Ghost of Tom Joad":

"Across the Border":

And "Youngstown":

Later, when these songs were played with the band, things got a bit ... um, louder? Here's "Youngtown" after Nils had his hip replacement surgery:

And the amazing "Ghost of Tom Joad" with Tom Morello:

One last thing. For those two Berkeley shows, Bruce had an opening act, the only time I ever saw such a thing except at multi-star concerts. It was John Wesley Harding. Here he is with Bruce:


geezer cinema: light from light (paul harrill, 2019)

Small film, the kind that does the festival circuit and then, as often as not, disappears. The big name in the cast is stand-up comedian Jim Gaffigan, who underplays nicely. The female lead is Marin Ireland, a Tony-nominated stage actress who turns up in a few movies and TV episodes every year without becoming anywhere near a household name. She's the best thing about the movie, quietly intelligent and modestly emotional when necessary.

Paul Harrill, who also wrote the film, seems determined to keep things low-key. It's a ghost story but not really, with the seeming supernatural touches existing only to help illuminate the characters, suffering from various forms of grief. In fact, if someone stumbled into Light from Light expecting special effects and scary moments, they would be disappointed in the extreme. The movie is only 82 minutes and moves slowly, yet I was surprised when it ended ... despite the pacing, I felt like things were just getting started. I thought we'd seen maybe an hour, yet in fact it was over. This is not a bad thing ... Harrill ends things at precisely the right moment, with nothing resolved but with the sense that the characters in the film have learned something about themselves. The audience has learned about the characters, too. It's a cautious character study that never overwhelms ... indeed, it never intends to.


tv in the 2010s: the half-hours, part two

(Cut-and-pasted from an earlier post.) I don't write as much about TV these days. One reason is that there is indeed too much good stuff ... it's hard enough to keep up with the watching, much less the writing. But I've found a catch-all way to inject TV into the blog, AV Club's "The 100 best TV shows of the 2010s". It's an obvious way to make my point about too much good stuff ... the list has 100 shows, and I haven't watched many of them (about a third). (Not to mention the thing about all such lists: each of us wonders why our favorite show didn't make the cut? Shout out to The 100Lights OutAgent CarterSweet/ViciousOutlander, and Hot Ones.) What follows is a few comments about the shows I did watch. This will be a multiple-post thread.

There are so many excellent half-hour series nowadays. Something about the format allows the creators to delve deeply into characters, infusing the shows with humor but always about more than just the jokes. Most of these series make room for people who are usually shunted to the side, when they turn up at all. I wrote earlier about Fleabag ... here are a few more that made the AV Club list (numbers are their place in the poll). In reverse order:

Better Things (62). Has gotten better in each of its three years, and since Pamela Adlon is the only one in charge now, she finally gets credit for what she always deserved. The setting (a divorced actress raising three daughters) mirrors Adlon's own life, although the show is not meant to duplicate that real life. But it informs the show in the way Adlon is so connected to the situations that arise.

Girls (61). In some ways, Girls never recovered from a line in the very first episode: "I think I might be the voice of my generation. Or, at least, voice of a generation." The second sentence shows a strong understanding of the young heroine's place, but it's the first sentence that people remember, and without the second sentence, the first sentence sounds extremely arrogant. Since Hannah Horvath had many similarities with creator/writer/star Lena Dunham, many assumed Hannah was Lena. Girls had many flaws, but the relationships between the four girls of the title felt real. And it was the introduction for many of us to Adam Driver.

Broad City (34). This show would rank much higher on my own list. Always funny, Broad City was one of the best portraits of women's friendship to ever appear on TV or anywhere else.


revisiting the passion of joan of arc (carl theodor dreyer, 1928)

Back in 2012, when I took part in a group that chose our favorite films of all time, I had The Passion of Joan of Arc at #15. It is the best film of 1928, and it gets my vote as the best film of the silent era. It is #17 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time. I thought it was time to break out my as-yet unseen Blu-ray copy of Criterion's release. Here is what I said about the film in 2012:

There are all sorts of markers that, I suspect, convince people to avoid a particular movie. If “everyone” says the movie is a classic, you might tire of their enthusiasm. Maybe it’s a silent movie and you don’t think you like those, or it’s in black & white and you think you don’t like those. Maybe it has a religious theme, and you aren’t ready to be converted. And maybe you read comments like those that appear in this group, where week after week we recommend this or that movie, and at some point you realize there is no way you’re going to keep up with our suggestions, and no way to ensure you’ll actually like the ones you watch. And so, when I tell you that The Passion of Joan of Arc is a justifiably great classic film, that when I say it’s great I don’t mean great like The Social Network but I mean great like Hamlet or The Great Gatsby or Born to Run, when I note that, as Pauline Kael wrote, this is “one of the greatest of all movies” … this time, it isn’t hyperbole. Falconetti, who plays Joan of Arc, never appeared in another movie, but she went out with a bang … her performance here is unparalleled. In addition to all of the above, you have likely never seen a film that looks quite like this one.

Jean Cocteau said The Passion of Joan of Arc was “an historical document from an era in which the cinema didn’t exist.” This perfectly explains the odd feeling we get watching the film, which is like a cinéma vérité documentary, except we know it can’t be. What is equally odd is that the film feels so “real” yet there is nothing realistic about it stylistically. As Dreyer said, “What counted was getting the spectator absorbed in the past; the means were multifarious and new.” The actors wore no make-up, and the film was shot in sequence, all of which added to the documentary feel. But Dreyer’s use of close-ups draws our attention; we are constantly aware of the manipulation of the camera.

Meanwhile, there is Falconetti. I’m suspicious when someone says “it’s great, but I can’t put the reason into words.” I usually assume the person is merely trying to disguise the way their subjective response affects their judgment. (I’m all in favor of subjective responses, I just don’t think they should be disguised.) I am also suspicious when someone uses a version of the “end of story” trick, wherein discussion is closed without any real explanation for what has been said (end of story). Yet, the truth is, I can’t describe Falconetti; she has to be seen. And even Kael, who was never at a loss for words, is left with nothing except to state that “Falconetti’s Joan may be the finest performance ever recorded on film.”

I would add a brief note regarding something I was not aware of. Apparently there is some disagreement about what speed to show the movie, either 20 frames per second or 24. I don't pretend to understand the details (there is an excellent supplement on the Blu-ray that discusses this). I can tell you that the 24 fps version is "shorter" because it runs faster. I watched the 20 fps version.


tv in the 2010s: the half-hours, part one

(Cut-and-pasted from an earlier post.) I don't write as much about TV these days. One reason is that there is indeed too much good stuff ... it's hard enough to keep up with the watching, much less the writing. But I've found a catch-all way to inject TV into the blog, AV Club's "The 100 best TV shows of the 2010s". It's an obvious way to make my point about too much good stuff ... the list has 100 shows, and I haven't watched many of them (about a third). (Not to mention the thing about all such lists: each of us wonders why our favorite show didn't make the cut? Shout out to The 100Lights OutAgent CarterSweet/ViciousOutlander, and Hot Ones.) What follows is a few comments about the shows I did watch. This will be a multiple-post thread.

There are so many excellent half-hour series nowadays. Something about the format allows the creators to delve deeply into characters, infusing the shows with humor but always about more than just the jokes. Most of these series make room for people who are usually shunted to the side, when they turn up at all. I wrote earlier about Fleabag ... here are a few more that made the AV Club list (numbers are their place in the poll). In reverse order:

Vida (90). The formerly marginalized group here is Mexican-Americans. Showrunner Tanya Saracho put together a crew of all-Latinx writers (mostly women) and expanded this into the crew in general. Vida has a strong queer feel, and won a GLAAD media award. It introduced new-to-me actors Melissa Barrera, Mishel Prada, and Ser Anzoategui. Season Two took the groundbreaking of the first season into a better series overall.

Master of None (87). Deserves to be on this list because of the phenomenal Season Two episode "Thanksgiving", featuring Lena Waithe, who won an Emmy.

Catastrophe (78). Sneaks up on you. Four seasons, 24 episodes, about an Irish teacher in London (Sharon Horgan) and a visiting American executive (Rob Delaney) who have a brief fling that leads to pregnancy and eventually marriage. Sounds blandly generic, but in the hands of Horgan and Delaney, it is anything but. Also features a solid supporting cast, capped by Carrie Fisher in her last TV role.


film fatales #66: fleabag (tony grech-smith and vicky jones, 2019)

This is the National Theatre Live production, which is a straightforward filmed version of the play in its final run. It's a hybrid, offered solely because Phoebe Waller-Bridge, and her creation, Fleabag, have become iconic. (To avoid confusion for those who are unfamiliar with it, "Fleabag" refers to both the play/show and to the main character.) Fleabag was originally a one-woman stage show. Waller-Bridge converted it into a TV series of 12 episodes over two seasons, winning acclaim and lots of awards. She has a lot on her plate, and had moved on from Fleabag, but she completed the circle by returning to the stage for a brief run of the one-woman show. This was filmed and shown on movie theater screens ... like I said, it's a hybrid, part play, part movie.

Fleabag doesn't necessarily benefit from being stuffed into a genre, so I should just let it go and not worry if it's a Film Fatale or even if it's a film at all. It's Fleabag, most closely attached to the first season of the TV series, which was an expansion of the original play.

I don't have much to add to my earlier reactions to Fleabag the series. About the most distinctive aspect of the series, I wrote, "Fleabag makes frequent use of breaking the fourth wall. It works wonderfully, in part because Waller-Bridge has such an expressive face that she conveys multitudes even when she doesn't say anything. We become her partners in crime, so to speak, connecting to the character in much deeper ways than is usual for a 'comedy'." Seeing the stage play (via movie theater ... OK, I'll quit), I see why Waller-Bridge might have opted for breaking the fourth wall, for on the stage, Fleabag speaks directly to the audience pretty much non-stop. Waller-Bridge turns that direct speech into confidential connections that aren't non-stop but usually surprising, even when you expect them. The intimacy of the series is lessened a bit in the play with its constant narration. But Fleabag is out in the open in the play ... there's nowhere to hide.

It's all bare bones. I list two directors above, but I'm not sure even that is accurate. Vicky Jones directed the play, Tony Grech-Smith did the camera for the broadcast. I'll cheat, call this a movie, point us in the direction of Jones, and call this a Film Fatale.

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)


geezer cinema: the good liar (bill condon, 2019)

There is nothing wrong with The Good Liar, and there are a couple of identifiable good things that will at the least please a certain segment of the film-going audience. If a movie starring two venerable English actors showing what they can do in a plot that features a twist or two sounds like something you'd like to see, you're probably right. (Of course, I could be describing the Olivier/Caine Sleuth.) Russell Tovey acquits himself well along with the Dame and the Sir. And Jim "Carson" Carter of Downton Abbey fame has a sizable role. Like I say, nothing wrong ... The Good Liar is harmless.

Nonetheless, there are no overwhelming reasons to see The Good Liar. If you need a Helen Mirren fix, The Long Good Friday or Gosford Park are better. If you want to see Ian McKellen, Gods and Monsters is a good one, and it is also directed by Bill Condon. In fact, if you only take one thing away from this post, it is that you should see Gods and Monsters, which also features the criminally underrated Brendan Fraser.


music friday/film fatales #65: who took the bomp? le tigre on tour (kerthy fix, 2010)

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 11 is called "Oscilloscope Laboratories Week":

Initially, I had this week marked down as A24 week, yet I feel they already get plenty of attention, especially 'round these Letterboxd parts. So, I figured I would shine the spotlight on a smaller studio developing and distributing some lesser known, yet still quality films from creators in it for the art of storytelling.

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen Oscilloscope Laboratories film.

If this Challenge is supposed to be a learning experience, than there may be no better example than this week, for I had no idea what Oscilloscope Laboratories was. The company was co-founded in 2008 by the late Beastie Boy, Adam Yauch. It seems to be best defined by a list of its productions, and it turns out, I had seen five of their movies: Wendy and Lucy, The Messenger, Exit Through the Gift Shop, Wuthering Heights (2011), and We Need to Talk About Kevin. The timing was good for Who Took the Bomp?, since I had spent the weekend attending Sleater-Kinney concerts, and Kathleen Hanna of Le Tigre was a charter member of the iconic riot grrrl band Bikini Kill. Who Took the Bomp? offers an intriguing backstage look at Le Tigre, as they took their final world tour in the mid-2000s. There is some strong concert footage, but what adds a special feel to the film is that Le Tigre, as a band and as individuals, are pretty funny. They are also dead serious ... this was a band rooted in left-wing politics, especially addressing gender and LGBTQ issues. It's a short, instructive, and entertaining film, and if it isn't much more than that, in the moment that feels like enough.

Here is one of Le Tigre's videos, "TKO":

And here, something from Who Took the Bomp?:

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)


war and peace (sergey bondarchuk, 1966)

There was an episode of Cheers where Sam Malone, worried that he might lose Diane Chambers to a literature professor, decides to read War and Peace so he'll have something to talk about when the group gets together (the book is recommended by self-proclaimed know-it-all Cliff Claven, who says it's the greatest novel ever written). Sam actually manages to get the book read, which impresses Diane. At the episode's end, she suggests they go see the movie version. "THERE'S A MOVIE? Cliff! I'll kill him!"

The movie to which Diane refers is probably the 208-minute, 1956 American production starring Audrey Hepburn, which made enough of an international impression that the Soviets decided they needed to make their own version of the classic Russian novel. With the support of the Soviet government, that War and Peace ended up with a running time of 431 minutes. A recent restoration was just released on Criterion, and while I was aware that this was one of those "see it on the big screen" pictures, my 66-year-old bladder couldn't imagine sitting in a theater for 7 hours straight. So I bought the Blu-ray and sat down to plan my approach.

At which time, I found out that Sergey Bondarchuk's massive film was originally released in four parts over the course of two years.

I felt like Sam Malone, only happy ... "THERE'S FOUR PARTS? I can watch one a day!"

War and Peace is a tremendous spectacle that spends much of its time on the personal relations between the main characters. I feared it would be akin to Doctor Zhivago, another epic film from a novel about historical Russia, and Doctor Zhivago is not one of my favorite films. But I am pleased to note that Bondarchuk's War and Peace is far superior to Zhivago, maintaining interest throughout its long running time, while offering some of the best epic scenes ever.

I assumed that this famous adaptation of the famous novel would have been highly acclaimed, and indeed, it won an Oscar for Best Foreign Film. But you won't find it on many of the lists I cite here so often. You won't find it on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time (it is currently at #1065). And in retrospect, I can see why, at least from my point of view. I've rarely liked big expensive historical epics ... I really did think it would be as poor as Doctor Zhivago. That doesn't explain why it isn't very highly regarded critically (although again, I don't want to overstate that ... #1065 is pretty good).

To be more specific about what works (and doesn't) ... the epic scale is impressive, not just in battle scenes but in more domestic extravagances like balls. Much of the acting is good, and ballerina Lyudmila Savelyeva is exquisite as Natasha. Bondarchuk occasionally uses effectively off-beat visual techniques. On the other hand, Bondarchuk as Pierre is a weak link.

War and Peace should be seen once. I'd say once is enough, though.