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film fatales #77: even the rain (icíar bollaín, 2010)

Another movie for "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." This is out of order. Week 23 is called "Gael García Bernal Week".

Gael García Bernal is perhaps one of the best performers working today that doesn't get nearly the amount of attention he deserves. And though his most well known performance is in an animated film, one needs to see this man perform in live-action to get the full effect. So, give some love to one of yours truly's favorite actors.

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen film starring Gael Garcia Bernal.

Even the Rain is a complex film that might seem fairly straightforward at first glance. Bernal plays a Mexican director, Sebastián, making a film with a Spanish producer about Columbus "discovering" America. They film in Cochabamba, Bolivia, for the usual reasons: it's cheaper.

It soon becomes apparent that the film Sebastián is making about how Columbus exploited the native population in many ways is replicating that exploitation. The people of Cochabamba go on a general strike (this is based on true events), and Sebastián is torn between support for the people and the problems he will have making his film (one of his primary actors turns out to be a leader of the revolt).

There are layers here. Sebastián wants to make his movie, he doesn't want to exploit anyone, but it happens anyway. And we in the audience can't help but wonder just how much the creators of Even the Rain paid the extras who came from the local area. It's not really fair ... they spoke to this in interviews ... but it's hard not to imagine Even the Rain following a similar path to Sebastián's movie. Unfair, but obvious without context. The filmmakers speak to this:

Meanwhile, much of Even the Rain is effective. Juan Carlos Aduviri, who plays the actor/revolutionary in his screen debut, comes from El Alto, next to La Paz. He grabs the screen ... it's believable that Sebastián wants him for his movie.

The parallels between the filmmakers and Columbus are interesting, although they are pressed on us a bit too hard. And I really have to believe that the filmmakers did right by the people. Perhaps the power of Even the Rain is that it raises such questions in the first place.

(Here is a letterboxd list of Film Fatales movies.)

music friday: high fidelity the series

High Fidelity the TV series is yet another version of Nick Hornby's creation. The trick here is that the lead character, a man in both the novel and in the 2000 movie with John Cusack, is now a woman played by Zoë Kravitz. The show is never a simple gender flip, but it still needs mentioning, since Hornby is sometimes considered the first "lad lit" writer. At least as important, though, is the updating of the story to 2020 (if nothing else, the idea of a show focused on a store that sells only vinyl records has a different feel nowadays). The casting is solid ... Kravitz is wonderful as Rob, showing all facets of her complicated and not always "nice" character, and the primary supporters, Da'Vine Joy Randolph (Cherise) and David H. Holmes (Simon), are equally fine. And Kravitz pulls off the "Fleabag" style of talking to the camera without being annoying.

Here is a Top Five Songs Featured in the TV Series list:

"Heart of Glass" turns up in a scene with Debbie Harry that matches a scene in the movie with Bruce Springsteen, right down to the dialogue being almost an exact match:

Bowie's album The Man Who Sold the World is featured in a mid-season episode where Rob fetishizes the album's original pressing (she is thinking of buying a collection from a woman played by Parker Posey who is getting revenge on her husband by selling his records). The album turns up at the end of the season, as well.

At one point, Rob puts on a Swamp Dogg record in the story, claiming "I will now sell five copies of Love, Loss, and Auto-Tune". Immediately, people in story ask, "who is that?"

In a marvelous episode written by Solomon Georgio, Rob gets a suggestion as a DJ to start her night by playing "Automatic":

In that same episode, Simon offers this analysis of Sylvester and "You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)": "In the 70s, the only way to get a disco song on the radio was if the DJs at the gay bars played it. That was the first time we ever had any say in the record industry. Disco was the sound of liberation."

kamau right now: the state of the 2020 election

Last night we attended "Kamau Right Now: The State of the 2020 Election". It felt good being among like-minded people, and the Roda Theater at Berkeley Rep (I think the capacity is 600) was full. W. Kamau Bell welcomed several guests: Alicia Garza (co-founder of Black Lives Matter), Jamilah King (Mother Jones), Robert Reich (what hasn't he done?), and Carroll Fife (Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment).

Bell was the perfect host for this event, a stand-up comedian and activist who has hosted many interview programs, and who has lived in Berkeley for several years. All of his guests brought a little something different to the table, although they were all leftists (as were most/all of the people in the audience). It was a smart crowd (at least, we thought we were smart), and we were rewarded with discussions that were enlightening as well as entertaining.

Still, there was something self-congratulatory about it all. Not from the stage ... all of the speakers had real-life experience, and understood that not everywhere is Berkeley (and that Berkeley isn't always "Berkeley"). On some level, it was as if we thought we should be congratulated for showing up.

I am probably being a bit harsh. Our hearts were in the right place.

Here is a video of the event (you can see my wife and I for a minute or so starting at about 30:50):

Kamau Video

geezer cinema/film fatales #76: portrait of a lady on fire (céline sciamma, 2019)

Portrait of a Lady on Fire is exquisite in the way that love is in real life. It hurts, then it feels so good. Céline Sciamma takes her time telling her story, which perfectly matches the gradual process by which the two main characters fall in love. The film smolders, and, as Mick LaSalle wrote, "The last time I wanted two people to kiss this much, I was one of the people."

Comparisons have been drawn between this film and Blue Is the Warmest Color, and it's understandable, although much of the discussion seems to revolve around picking one or the other as "better". Sciamma addressed this point:

We can absolutely love both films. We do not live up to the exciting nature of this moment if we start reducing everything to questions of ‘good or not good; moral or immoral; voyeur or not voyeur,’ that’s not the point. The key is to understand what animates such images, and what they seek to impart.

The films do make for instructive examples of the differences between the male and female gaze. And "gaze" is the proper term for Portrait of a Lady on Fire, for much of the relationship between the two women is shown in how they look at each other. Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel as a painter and her reluctant subject are perfectly matched, and both deliver perfect performances. Sciamma won Best Screenplay at Cannes, but the film relies on Merlant and Haenel. Backed by Sciamma's direction, the two actors draw us into their story. Luàna Bajrami is also excellent in a lesser but important role.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire looks great, as well, with cinematographer Claire Mathon making the most of what in many cases are scenes lit by candlelight.

Some of the best moments are almost wordless, including a remarkable final shot that stays with you long after the movie is over. And Sciamma uses music sparingly, which adds to the impact when it does occur, most notably in this, which I think is the best scene among so many great ones in the movie:

They are singing "non possunt fugere", Latin for "They cannot escape".

Simply put, Portrait of a Lady on Fire is an excellent movie in every way. #193 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time.

(Here is a letterboxd list of Film Fatales movies.)

french cancan (jean renoir, 1955)

Another movie for "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." This is out of order. Week 22 is called "Foreign Musicals Week".

"What's the point of watching a musical that's in a language you don't even understand?" you might ask. Well, as I'm not someone who's from an English-speaking country, I sometimes ask myself that too. But I still watch musicals in other languages, because music is universal! Hope you find a musical with a sound you like :-))

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen musical in a language different from one that you speak.

It's always nice to check out a Renoir movie I haven't seen ... he is on my shortlist of the greatest directors of all time. Yet this is only the seventh Renoir I have seen, and he has more than 40. I wouldn't mind having a Renoir festival, just gorge on his movies until I'd seen them all, but I also like to spread things around, watch things I wouldn't have encountered otherwise. That is, I am taking part in this Season Challenge because it exposes me to new films, not because it gives me an excuse to see French Cancan. Still, it's a happy coincidence that Renoir popped into my Challenge.

French Cancan is an interesting blend of artifice and the real. The entire film was shot on sets, and there is no effort to hide that fact. But the sets don't feel fake as much as they are extra-real. Everything is magnified, especially the colors. The film consciously calls on French impressionism ... Renoir's father was Pierre-Auguste Renoir, who frequently painted his family, including young Jean. The super-reality of the look of French Cancan reflects the way Renoir creates a world where art is paramount, where daily life can never reach the heights of art, and where the life of a performer is mostly realized on stage, often at the cost of an ordinary life.

The great Jean Gabin plays a cafe owner, Danglard, with an eye for new talent. During the course of the film, he drops one woman after another ... he cares about them all, but he cares more about performing, he brings out the performer in his partners, and moves on when another catches his eye. Near the end of the film, Danglard chastises his latest discovery, simultaneously revealing himself as a cad and making a case for the value of the performer:

Renoir loves all of his characters. When she is a laundry worker, Nini (Françoise Arnoul) is a lovely girl, although she is not an innocent. When she becomes a dancer, she blossoms. When she resists Danglard and the call of the stage, it is understandable, but when she finally gives herself over to the audience, she is fulfilled. But she isn't "better" than she was in the laundry, and the trade-off is clear: be like all the rest, or be a trouper. As usual, Renoir manages to imbue every step of Nini's life with respect. Not idealized respect ... French Cancan isn't a world where laundry workers are better than everyone else. But neither are troupers.

Everything culminates in the Cancan:

In the middle of all this, Renoir finds time for a cameo appearance by Edith Piaf as "Eugénie Buffet":

There are so many great performances here. Of special note is the smoldering Mexican star María Félix (at one point, she and Arnoul have a wonderful fight, described by Roger Ebert as "one of those movie scenes, much beloved in the taverns of Westerns, in which everybody in the room inexplicably joins in and starts pummeling each other.")

#473 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time.

geezer cinema/film fatales #75: the photograph (stella meghie, 2020)

The Photograph is a movie about African-Americans, starring African-Americans, written and directed by an African-American, that is about love and romance. If not revolutionary, it at the least stands out among romances with white characters. The film is a bit generic, but adding black characters makes a big difference ... we're seeing something we don't often get at the movies.

The Photograph benefits greatly from its cast. LaKeith Stanfield is building quite the resume, and he is predictably fine here. Issa Rae is known for the HBO comedy Insecure, so The Photograph represents something different for her. She lights up the screen ... even with this cast, she is the best thing about the movie. Lil Rel Howery, Rob Morgan, Chanté Adams, and more ... everyone is at the top of their game.

Stella Meghie tells the story using lots of flashbacks. This again works primarily because of the casting ... when we see characters at two different times in their lives, the actors for each time frame are believably the same person.

The Photograph is low-key, and if you are in the right mood, low-key is probably for the best. But I found the film's pleasures to be mild. See it for the acting, see it for the still-unique concept of a black romance film, but for me, The Photograph rarely got beyond "I'm glad I've watched this". Sure be nice if Issa Rae's star got bigger, though.

(Here is a letterboxd list of Film Fatales movies.)

(Here is a letterboxd list of movies with African-American directors.)

losing it at the movies: last tango in paris (bernardo bertolucci, 1972)

Picking this up after another long break, this is the ninth in a series, "Losing It at the Movies," which is explained here.

In 5001 Nights at the Movies, Pauline Kael wrote of Last Tango in Paris:

Exploitation films had been supplying mechanized sex—sex as physical stimulant but without passion or emotional violence. Then, in this film, Bernardo Bertolucci used sex to express the characters’ drives. Marlon Brando, as the aging American, Paul, is working out his aggression on the young bourgeois French girl, Jeanne (Maria Schneider), and the physical menace of sexuality that is emotionally charged is such a departure from everything that audiences had come to expect at the movies that the film created a sensation. It’s a bold and imaginative work—a great work. When Brando improvises within Bertolucci’s structure, his full art is realized; his performance is intuitive, rapt, princely. Working with Brando, Bertolucci achieves realism with the terror of actual experience still alive on the screen.

In her full review, Kael famously compared the film to the first performance of Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring" in 1913, which was a breakthrough in classical music and, legend says, inspired riots in its debut. There is no way for any movie to live up to such accolades, and anyone watching Last Tango today might be surprised that the famous critic was so overwhelmed by the film. Roger Ebert wrote, in 1995:

Watching Bernardo Bertolucci's "Last Tango in Paris" 23 years after it was first released is like revisiting the house where you used to live, and did wild things you don't do anymore. Wandering through the empty rooms, which are smaller than you remember them, you recall a time when you felt the whole world was right there in your reach, and all you had to do was take it.

This movie was the banner for a revolution that never happened.... It was not the beginning of something new, but the triumph of something old -- the "art film," which was soon to be replaced by the complete victory of mass-marketed "event films." The shocking sexual energy of "Last Tango in Paris" and the daring of Marlon Brando and the unknown Maria Schneider did not lead to an adult art cinema. The movie frightened off imitators, and instead of being the first of many X-rated films dealing honestly with sexuality, it became almost the last. Hollywood made a quick U-turn into movies about teenagers, technology, action heroes and special effects.

Make no mistake ... at the time, Last Tango in Paris was shocking. It was banned in some countries and censored in others. (Oddly, the version I watched this time, on HBO, was listed as NC-17 but the infamous butter scene was toned down by sticking a lamp over their midsections so we couldn't see exactly what was going on.)

The film is beautiful ... the cinematographer, Vittorio Storaro, worked many times with Bertolucci, and his camera movement can be smoothly ecstatic even when the scenes do not involve sex.

The IMDB tells us that "Marlon Brando later admitted in his autobiography 'Songs My Mother Taught Me' that after making this film, he vowed to never again become so vulnerable for a role." Once you've seen his performance, you know what he meant. You will often read that someone is so good, they don't even seem to be acting. But that's not what Brando does here. We know he's acting, but he submerges himself so efficiently that we realize his acting is more real than someone else's non-acting. His Paul is merciless, with himself as well as with others, even with his wife, dead by suicide. He projects his self-hatred onto people. He is never what you'd call a "nice man", but we empathize with him because his pain is so deeply felt.

If only the whole movie was as good as Brando, it would be as good as Kael thought it was. Maria Schneider had many terrible things to say in later years about her experience making the film, and I see no reason not to believe her. What is most important as we watch is that her Jeanne is only there to provide Paul with something to work with. Bertolucci never fills out her character, and while she is fine in the movie, there isn't any real effort to make her better than fine.

Last Tango in Paris is not Bertolucci's best film ... it's been a very long time since I've seen it, but my memory is that The Conformist ranks at the top. Nor is it Brando's best, although it is close, and as his last great performance, it encompasses all of his past glories, which are imprinted in our minds. #371 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time.

geezer cinema: what she said: the art of pauline kael (rob garver, 2018)

This may be the ultimate "Steven's Pick" movie. Last summer, I made a small donation to the folks making this movie, which meant my name showed up in the credits, a first. Kael, of course, has been an obsession of mine for close to 50 years. A quote from her sits atop every page of this blog. Rob Garver has been working on this film for several years ... IMDB lists it as a 2018 movie, and that's when it first appeared at festivals. Prior to this, Garver was a director of shorts.

Garver tries to squeeze Kael's entire life into 98 minutes, an effort that is doomed from the start, although he does a pretty good job nonetheless. He hits the high points ... born on a chicken farm in Petaluma, California, attended Cal and settled in at Berkeley, had a daughter, worked at menial jobs because she couldn't make a living as a film critic, ran a theater, did reviews on radio, published a compilation of her work, got noticed, and went to New York.

You don't learn a lot about Pauline Kael the person ... if you do, it's more like my borrowed quote, "I'm frequently asked why I don't write my memoirs. I think I have." Garver walks us through her most famous reviews, and those reviews supply much of the film's narrative. Limelight, Shoeshine, The Sound of Music, Bonnie and Clyde, Citizen Kane, Last Tango in Paris, Nashville, Shoah. Garver isn't a hagiographer ... he mentions some of her low spots in passing. But What She Said is nonetheless a love letter (appropriate that when it finally came to Berkeley, it was Valentine's Day). The very fact of its existence is remarkable: a documentary about a movie critic who has been dead for almost 20 years, who wrote her last review almost 30 years ago.

The movie is probably best appreciated by those of us who have memorized everything she ever wrote. Garver uses clips of Kael, interviews with people who knew her and/or were influenced by her, and voice overs of some famous passages, read by Sarah Jessica Parker. (Parker does fine ... she doesn't try to imitate the sound of Kael, she let's the words do the work, and while at first it was a bit odd hearing Parker, eventually I quit noticing.)

What She Said should be seen by all Kael aficionados. I'm not sure it will connect with others, though.

Here is a brief clip that combines Parker reading, Kael speaking, and Quentin Tarantino being Quentin Tarantino:

And the trailer:

music friday: valentine's day

I'm driving a big lazy car rushin' up the highway in the dark
I got one hand steady on the wheel and one hand's tremblin' over my heart
It's pounding baby like it's gonna bust right on through
And it ain't gonna stop till I'm alone again with you
A friend of mine became a father last night
When we spoke in his voice I could hear the light
Of the skies and the rivers the timberwolf in the pines
And that great jukebox out on Route 39
They say he travels fastest who travels alone
But tonight I miss my girl mister tonight I miss my home
Is it the sound of the leaves
Left blown by the wayside
That's got me out here on this spooky old highway tonight
Is it the cry of the river
With the moonlight shining through
That ain't what scares me baby
What scares me is losing you
They say if you die in your dreams you really die in your bed
But honey last night I dreamed my eyes rolled straight back in my head
And God's light came shinin' on through
I woke up in the darkness scared and breathin' and born anew
It wasn't the cold river bottom I felt rushing over me
It wasn't the bitterness of a dream that didn't come true
It wasn't the wind in the grey fields I felt rushing through my arms
No no baby it was you

So hold me close honey say you're forever mine
And tell me you'll be my lonely valentine