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furie (lê văn kiệt, 2019)

This is the fourteenth film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2020-21", "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 the 6th annual challenge, and my second time participating (last year can be found at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20"). Week 14 is called "I've been meaning to get to it..." Week

It's December. Another trip around the sun nearly complete, and movies from last year have been sitting in your watchlist for almost a whole year. Sure, you've probably checked out a lot of the major pictures, but there's always stuff that falls through the cracks. Let's rectify that a little by watching films from 2019 that we said we'd get to, but still haven't yet. Some winter cleaning, if you will.

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen film on your watchlist from 2019.

Holy moly! I had no idea. My original pick for this challenge was Honey Boy, but when news emerged that star Shia LaBeouf was being sued by his co-star and former girlfriend for an abusive relationship, I thought I'd change my pick. Furie was on my watchlist, but I can't even remember why. I saw it was from Vietnam, and it had an ass-kicking female lead, and that's usually good enough for me. I was happy and surprised to learn that Furie was much more than I expected.

The plot is basic, much like the Taken series: parent's child is kidnapped, parent goes on a rampage to get them back. Liam Neeson is a fine actor, an Oscar nominee who in his mid-50s became a surprise action star. He's good at it, too, but he doesn't call on too many of his acting chops in the Taken films. And this is one way Furie differs from the norm. Veronica Ngo (born Ngô Thanh Vân), who plays the title character (the original title is the actual name of her character, Hai Phuong), has had an interesting life, working as a model, a pop star, and eventually an actor. Her family put her on a boat when she was ten, and she escaped Vietnam for Norway. She returned ten years later and began her career. I didn't recognize her, but she had a small part in Star Wars: The Last Jedi as Kelly Marie Tran's sister. Just recently, she turned up in Da 5 Bloods and The Old Guard. She didn't make much of an impression on me, which made me more surprised when I saw what she could do in Furie.

I usually get impatient when action movies try to interest us in the characters' lives, but this time was different. Director Le-Van Kiet and writer Kay Nguyen made Hai Phuong interesting, and Veronica Ngo was superb. It was as if Liam Neeson had paused during his kicking ass in Taken to remind the audience he could act as well. Hai Phuong is a bad ass, to be sure, but Ngo really takes over the vengeance plotline. You do not want to get in her way.

The action scenes are well-choreographed, which I always appreciate. Everything about Furie is a little better than you expect, and the result knocks your socks off.

Here, she sees her daughter being kidnapped:

And here she takes on the ringleader of the kidnappers, who has already kicked her ass earlier in the film:

According to Wikipedia, Furie was the highest-grossing Vietnamese film in history.


geezer cinema: molly's game (aaron sorkin, 2017)

Aaron Sorkin's debut as a film director, after a long career as a writer as well as the creator of several good TV series (including my favorite, Sports Night). Sorkin indulges too often in soapbox speechifying, but he usually gets away with it because his dialogue is so much fun. There's no mistaking Molly's Game as anything other than a Sorkin film, and his directing doesn't deflect from that ... he does a good job of getting out of the way of the dialogue. He also shows a nice touch with actors ... Jessica Chastain and Idris Elba don't need Aaron Sorkin's help to give us great performances, but again, Sorkin knows enough to give his stars solid dialogue and then letting them show their stuff.

"Showing their stuff" takes on special significance for Chastain as Molly Bloom (yep, it's her real name ... Molly's Game is yet another "based on a true story" picture). Chastain, with two Oscar nominations and a Golden Globe (she received a Globe nomination for this film) is generally considered as an actress first and foremost. Her red-haired looks are striking, but they don't take over the parts she plays. But Molly Bloom, who ran poker games, had a particular look for work, and costume designed Susan Lyall knew how to exploit that look. Molly changes costumes in what feels like every scene involving poker games, and a key element in all of those outfits is cleavage. Chastain has said that the response to this aspect of her performance surprised her, stating about comments on a YouTube video of the film's trailer, "I’ve never done a movie where people have been talking about my body like that." It's all subjective ... my wife said she wouldn't have noticed if I hadn't brought it up. But the way Molly is presented, you start thinking Chastain's cleavage should have gotten a mention in the credits.

The poker games in the movie reminded me of the chess in The Queen's Gambit. Sorkin takes something that isn't inherently interesting on the screen and makes it exciting. The legal matters surrounding Molly's life, featuring Elba as her lawyer, are as good as the rest of the film, this time reminding me of similar scenes in The Social Network, which Sorkin also wrote.

I don't want to overstate things. Molly's Game is entertaining, the acting of the leads is excellent, and what more could you ask for? Yet I never felt like I was watching a classic, or a movie I'd enjoy watching again. Still, Molly's Game is easily worth watching a first time.


music friday

Interesting angle to this week's batch of acts I saw in concert: all but one were opening acts.

The Band, 1974. We actually saw them twice that year. First was the Dylan/Band tour (which you can hear on the album Before the Floor ... recordings on that album came from Los Angeles just a couple of days after we saw them). Later in the year, they were second-billed to Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young at a Day on the Green. Here they are at Wembley a couple of months after we saw them that second time:

Air Supply, 1977. Definitely a band I would never have paid to see. They opened for Rod Stewart ... we saw them at the end of the tour. Here they are ... if I were you, I wouldn't bother to click on the video, it will just take four minutes out of your life you'll never get back:

Rosanne Cash, 1982. Now this is my idea of a great opening act. She opened for Bonnie Raitt, who was still several years away from her big breakthrough. An excellent pairing. Here is "I Wonder", which hit #8 on the country charts in '82.

The Bobs, 1983. Finally, a headliner! Funny thing is, they are by far the least-known of the acts on today's list. They were touring behind their first album, and we saw them in a small theater with a capacity of barely over 300. Their schtick was that they were an acapella group who reworked classic rock tunes like "Helter Skelter" using nothing but their voices and bodies. This song lives on at our house ... pretty much the only tune of theirs we still remember:

What the heck, I'll give them a second video, one of their specialities:


tv 2020

Watching the Euphoria "Christmas Special" reminded me that it's about time for a recap of the year in TV. Euphoria hasn't been on for awhile ... Season Two will get here eventually, but the virus has made it nearly impossible to get back to work. So we're getting two tweener episodes that take place after Season One/before Season Two. The first featured Rue (Zendaya) in a tailspin after her love Jules (Hunter Schafer) left on a train. (Jules will be the focus of the second episode.) Rue goes back on drugs, and the episode we just got consisted almost entirely of her and her NA sponsor dealing with the situation. I was reminded of the Velvet Underground. That band made some of the most discordant music ever, but they also had lovely songs like "Pale Blue Eyes" which carried more power for being the vicinity of the discord. Euphoria so far is not a show for everyone. It's over the top, excessive in so many ways. Because of this, though, the Christmas episode was kinda like "Pale Blue Eyes" ... it carried more power for being in the vicinity of Season One's craziness. We got a two-person, one-set hour, perfect for filming during a pandemic, with both actors (not just Zendaya but also Colman Domingo as her sponsor) putting together award-worthy highlight reels. Domingo got to be a bit more showy, but Zendaya, who was the youngest person to ever win the Best Actress in a Drama Emmy for her work in Season One, played this special episode low key. We had to watch her face to see what she was going through, and she was going through a lot. I'm excited to see what else Euphoria has in store for us.

Meanwhile, some shows I wrote about this year, and a few I didn't.

The 100. I loved this in spite of itself. The fans were, shall we say, interesting.

Agents of SHIELD. "This final season is a delight, as they use time travel as an excuse for some great looks at the past."

Better Things. "These things are in alphabetical order, but this is the best of the shows. If you only binge one series from this list, this is the one. Pamela Adlon is a genius."

Devs. "While it tended to be obscure, that seemed appropriate for a show that was about philosophical truths."

Gentleman Jack. "It's created by Sally Wainwright, who also created the terrific and dark Happy Valley. The lead is played by Suranne Jones, who I am embarrassed to admit I had never heard of, despite her acting for 25 years. Well, I've heard of her now, and I won't be forgetting her soon.

GLOW. "It doesn't get much more surprising than this. GLOW, based on a cheesy rassling show ("Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling") from the 80s, is funny, entertaining, and works as drama, as well. Alison Brie and Betty Gilpin are great as the leads, but the whole cast delivers. There is still one more season to go." (Sad editor's note: the final season was cancelled due to the pandemic.)

High Fidelity, High Fidelity. "From a Nick Hornby novel to a film with John Cusack, always very guy-oriented. This version benefits greatly from 1) making the main character a woman, and 2) casting Zoë Kravitz in the role. She's the best thing about it, although the supporting cast is appealing, as well. Never quite essential, but often fun to watch." Winner of this year's Karen Sisco Award.

Hot Ones. Not really a TV show, I guess ... I'm not talking about the game show on regular television, I'm talking about the YouTube sensation. I look forward to each weekly episode as much as I do any other show on this list. The premise is simple: invite a celebrity to eat ten wings with increasingly hot sauce, and then pump them with questions when their guard drops because they are too busy reacting to the heat. Host Sean Evans is a masterful interviewer who regularly gets compliments from his guests. Among the guests in recent seasons: Zoë Kravitz, Jessica Alba, The Undertaker, Daniel Radcliffe. Watch out for Da Bomb.

I May Destroy You. "What matters is when Arabella accepts that while she will never erase or forget what happened, she can continue with her life, can finally refuse to be defined by her assault. In what can only be called a delightful turn, she is able to clear her writer's block and finish her book, at which time, we realize the series I May Destroy You reflects the book Arabella writes, and serves the purpose for Coel that it does for Arabella."

Lovecraft Country. Mini-series version of a novel by Matt Ruff that was mostly faithful to the novel while turning the book's stylistic touches into filmic flourishes. Occasionally great, never less than good.

Outlander. "Outlander has pulled off a fairly rare feat: its fifth season was on a par with its first."

Perry Mason. "The recreation of 1932 Los Angeles is strong, and Tatiana Maslany delivers in every one of her scenes. Perry Mason is not yet a great show ... it may never be a great show. But it's a lot better than I anticipated, with room to grow."

The Plot Against America. "Anything David Simon does is worth your attention. Here, he and Ed Burns offer a miniseries based on the Philip Roth novel about an alternate history where Charles Lindbergh becomes president in 1940 and America turns fascist. As you can imagine, it feels familiar in 2020. Great cast, great writing, great world creating."

The Queen's Gambit. Not quite a trifle, with fine performances from Anya Taylor-Joy and Marielle Heller. Made chess nerds seem almost cool.

Vida. "A show that was ignored by too many people ... Hopefully, it will be discovered in future years."

Watchmen. "Watchmen is timely ... its made-up world is like our own in worrisome ways (including the fact that in the world of the show, Robert Redford is president). It's also oddly prescient, in a rather backwards way: while the universe of the show is an alternate one, it hinges on the actual events in Tulsa known as the Black Wall Street Massacre, which has been in the news of late."


mank (david fincher, 2020)

You can't talk about Mank without talking about Citizen Kane. Like many people, I re-watched Kane the day before we watched Mank. I liked it quite a lot this time around ... you never know with classic movies, sometimes they reveal more with each viewing, other times you wonder why you ever thought it was great. Citizen Kane still isn't boring, which is an achievement in itself for a movie that is almost 80 years old and has been watched by yours truly countless times. Many years ago, in the fabled Facebook Fave 50 event a few of us did, I put Kane at #7 on my list. Here is a taste of what I wrote:

Citizen Kane is a group effort. The “authorship” of the movie has been a matter of heated debate for decades (it seems most accurate to say that Welles and screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz are co-authors, but that Welles-as-director had a much larger hand in the film that resulted from the script). Gregg Toland might even be more important than Mankiewicz. Toland, the film’s cinematographer, was such an integral part of Citizen Kane that his name appears at the same time as Welles’ in the credits. The look of the film is endlessly fascinating. It looks intriguing even as stills on a page, but to fully appreciate what Toland pulls off, you must see it “in action.”

Mank addresses that heated debate about authorship. Pauline Kael doesn't show up physically ... in 1941, she wasn't Pauline Kael as we came to know her. But she is all over the movie. It helps to know her history with Citizen Kane, but I'm not spending this entire blog post recounting it for you. What matters is that a man named Jack Fincher wrote the initial script for Mank, intending the movie to be made in the 1990s, and that Jack Fincher was apparently very influenced by Kael's notorious essay, "Raising Kane". Fincher only got one screen credit in his life, and it came 17 years after he died, when his son, the acclaimed director David Fincher, used his father's script as the foundation of his own movie, Mank. Kael influenced Jack, David used Jack's script, and the result is Mank. (Given the film turns on issues of authorship, all of this is appropriate fodder for discussion.)

Do you need to know any of this to watch and appreciate Mank? I watched it in a Netflix party with eight family members, and a couple of them might have had some minimal knowledge of the backstory, but I am the only Kael obsessive in the family. It's safe to say none of them loved Mank, but none of them hated it, either, and the holes in their knowledge focused not on Kael and Jack Fincher, but on the enormous number of real-life characters who are barely, if at all, explained in the movie. My wife kept consulting her phone to see who was this or that person. So your enjoyment of Mank will depend a bit on what you know about the characters, not just Herman J. Mankiewicz and William Randolph Hearst and Marion Davies, but also characters like Irving Thalberg and Louis B. Mayer and John Houseman and, yes, Orson Welles, all of whom are important characters in Mank, and, digging even deeper, people like Josef von Sternberg and Norma Shearer, who are in the film but barely introduced to us before they disappear.

In all of this, I am focusing on how Mank fits into the legend of Citizen Kane, and on how an audience who comes to the story cold might react. But I've yet to say whether Mank is actually any good.

Yes, it's good. It is not the definitive word on the authorship of Citizen Kane, any more than was "Raising Kane". Like most biopics, Mank fudges with the truth in the service of telling a story. The acting is variable, or rather, the casting is variable ... Gary Oldman will likely get an Oscar nomination for his performance as the title character, but in truth he's too old for the part. Amanda Seyfried gives a kind performance as Marion Davies, and I'm always glad to see Tuppence Middleton from my beloved Sense8 in anything (she plays Mank's wife). Fincher and his team put a lot of work into the look of Mank, which is a black-and-white film that doesn't exactly emulate the look of Kane. The recreation of Hollywood in the 30s and 40s is entertaining. Whichever Fincher was responsible for the words we hear on the screen made certain to include most of Mank's famous bon mots, even if they don't always turn up where they were actually said.

I don't know ... for some reason, I hoped that Mank would be something more than just an artfully-made biopic. My expectations were dashed, but the film is no disaster. And since its take on Mankiewicz, Welles, and Citizen Kane is largely Kael's, and since Kael is my icon, I found it enjoyable to see what others made of her work. In fact, the one thing I took away from Mank over all others was that I wish Pauline were alive to see it. I'd love to read her review.


the death & life of john f. donovan (xavier dolan, 2018)

This is the thirteenth film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2020-21", "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 the 6th annual challenge, and my second time participating (last year can be found at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20"). Week 13 is called Northern Exposure: Xavier Dolan Week:

A type of challenge that has been in most if not all prior Seasons was the "Master of the East/West" challenge, highlighting an Eastern and Western director, respectively. This year, I figured we'd shake it up. So, I offer to you all an examination of the directing career (so far) of Canada native, Xavier Dolan. Dolan's work throughout the past decade or so has garnered a great amount of positive critical reaction, though I think its fair to say he's still not exceedingly well known. Have a look and see if his stuff is worth the hype.

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen film directed by Xavier Dolan.

I had never watched a Xavier Dolan movie before. Actually, I had never heard of Xavier Dolan, and as I have said before, that's one of the best things about these challenges: you are introduced to films you might otherwise have missed. He does it all ... in John F. Donovan he is director, co-writer, co-producer, and co-editor. And he brings together an impressive cast: Kit Harington, Natalie Portman, Jacob Tremblay (Room), Susan Sarandon, Kathy Bates, Thandie Newton, Michael Gambon. Young Tremblay is a standout, Harington looks pretty, Gambon has one scene that may or may not be a dream. Dolan held my interest. I wanted to know what happened to the closeted actor John F. Donovan, even though the timeline allows us to know the answer in the very first scene. The Death & Life of John F. Donovan was OK ... it didn't change my life, but it wasn't a waste of time.

I admit I was astonished to find the film received a Metascore of 28/100, "generally unfavorable reviews", with only one review out of twelve being positive. Wikipedia summarized the response:

It currently holds an approval rating of 20% on Rotten Tomatoes, based on 30 reviews, with an average rating of 3.55/10. The site's critical consensus reads, "The Death and Life of John F. Donovan finds writer-director Xavier Dolan flailing at profundity with a technically assured drama that never makes sense of its own ideas." ... IndieWire dubbed the film the "worst" of Dolan's career; they also called the screenplay "soapy" and "clumsy". The Guardian gave the film one out of five stars, deeming it a "dubious mess". NOW Magazine called the film "mediocre at best". RogerEbert.com criticized Dolan's music choices and wrote that the film has "major flaws", but praised Tremblay's performance. The Hollywood Reporter called the cast "impressive", but called the film a "half-baked, cumbersome, overlong psychodrama".

I'm here to say it wasn't all that bad. Which is damning with faint praise, but I felt like those critics were watching a different film than what I saw. The first cut was four hours long, and Jessica Chastain apparently had a sizable part which was completely cut. The fractured timeline made the film a bit choppy, but overall, I didn't feel that it was missing two hours.


music friday

Joe Walsh, 1974. Days on the Green were a great place to see a lot of bands for a relatively low price. They simulated the festival experience, except you had restrooms and food vendors. I saw Joe Walsh as one of the openers for CSNY and The Band. Here he is with one of his biggest solo hits, from 1973:

Edgar Winter, 1975. Barely counts ... I saw him, but have little memory of the event. It was a show with Edgar and Johnny Winter. Edgar played first, and the sound was so awful (San Diego Sports Arena) that we left before Johnny came out. Here is a 1974 cut from Edgar:

The Who, 1976. This was sold as a Day on the Green, with The Who and the Dead. It was my only time seeing these two bands, and I am grateful that Moonie was still with us.

Vanity 6, 1983. Opened for Prince and The Time on the 1999 Tour. Word is The Time backed Vanity 6 from behind a curtain, which didn't go over too well with the band. Here they are a few weeks before we saw them:


catching up: the last five books i've read

I'm always reading one or two books, but I never write about them. So here are a few words about the last five books I've read, starting with the one I just finished.

Simon Wells, She's a Rainbow: The Extraordinary Life of Anita Pallenberg: The Black Queen. It's probably impossible to write a boring book about Anita Pallenberg, and in fact, I stuck with She's a Rainbow for no other reason than to see what Anita was up to next. I feel like Wells overstates her importance, but I did buy this book, released this year, so obviously I find her interesting. Of course I wanted to read about Performance, and it's there, although Wells doesn't offer much new. It's nice to have her whole story in one place, but I wish the book were better. Wells is an idiosyncratic writer who sometimes seems to be unaware of how to structure a sentence, although I finally realized it's just one quirk, repeated endlessly. A sentence will suffice for evidence: "Draped over her old friend, musician Richard Lloyd, at Xenon’s, one opportunist snapper, Ron Galella, captured a truly derelict Anita as she vainly attempted to avoid the camera’s lens." No, Simon, Ron Galella was not draped over Richard Lloyd.

Anne Helen Petersen, Can't Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation. I've long been a fan of Petersen, who has a PhD in media studies and who studied the history of the gossip industry. In an interview, Petersen said, "After I turned in my dissertation, I was hungry to write in a non-academic way ... [I] began writing pieces on the intersection of celebrity, feminism, and contemporary media for other places as well—all while working as a full-time academic. The academic job market is rough—and when the visiting professorship I had ended, I couldn’t find another job. But I had been subconsciously building a 'life raft' of sorts away from academia for years with my writing." Her Facebook page, "Celebrity Gossip, Academic Style", is a must-read, as is her newsletter, "Culture Study". Can't Even does an excellent job of identifying burnout, but I wasn't always convinced that millennials are notably different re: burnout than the rest of us.

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are. Even with things I read only recently, I tend to forget rather quickly exactly why I chose a particular book to read. Such is the case with Everybody Lies. Stephens-Davidowitz calls himself an "internet data expert", and in this book, he explains why he thinks "Big Data" (i.e. all the stuff Google knows about us and everything else) is crucial to understanding our world today. In the Internet/Google era, there are no small sample sizes. Everybody Lies is a first step ... the data is so immense, and there are so many questions to be asked. As for the "Everybody Lies" part? Stephens-Davidowitz stakes his claim from the start: "The power in Google data is that people tell the giant search engine things they might not tell anyone else."

Nick Hornby, Just Like You: A Novel. I rarely read fiction, but I almost always read Hornby, who hooked me with his first book (Fever Pitch, which happened to be non-fiction). Hornby was the first writer to be tagged within the genre "Lad Lit", and to be honest, it fits. To my eye, he has gotten better with his female characters, and he's certainly not afraid to move outside of what he might immediately know. Just Like You is the story of a romance between a 42-year-old white woman and a 22-year-old Black man. Like a lot of Hornby's fiction, the characters are believable, but the story feels a bit slight. That could just be me.

Kim Gordon, Girl in a Band: A Memoir. Makes an interesting pair with the Anita Pallenberg biography, in that Pallenberg's influence in the music world was based mostly on her relationships with musicians, while Gordon's place in music history comes from her membership in Sonic Youth. I've never been the biggest Sonic Youth fan, but I enjoyed reading about the life of a "girl in a band" from the girl's perspective. And Gordon's book revolves less around gossip than does the Pallenberg bio. The lesson, it appears, is that if you want it told right, tell your own story.

 


geezer cinema: the nest (sean durkin, 2020)

The Nest is Sean Durkin's second feature, after Martha Marcy May Marlene. That movie came out in 2011. Nine years is a long time between movies. His earlier film had a lot to recommend it, especially the acting of Elizabeth Olsen and the rest of the cast. Now, with The Nest, Durkin establishes himself as an excellent director of actors, because the leads here, Jude Law and Carrie Coon, carry the film. It's not a bad film without them, but it's very good with them, and for all their talents, Durkin deserves credit for getting their best out of them.

I don't know which of the two is better. I've been a fan of Coon since The Leftovers, and she's wonderful as a wife, Allison, whose marriage isn't all it seems. Durkin pulls off an interesting trick in The Nest, in that it plays like a horror film but isn't a horror film at all. (In a mixed review, Oliver Jones wrote, "It looks like a horror movie, swims like a horror movie, and quacks like a horror movie, but it isn’t a horror movie. So then what the hell is it?") Coon has shown that she can take any role and find its core, and she wins our sympathy for her situation. This leads to that horror-movie feel ... you wait for something to happen to her, and Durkin, who also wrote the screenplay, plays on our expectations of the genre. This makes us think of Jude Law's husband Rory as the Bad Guy, and yes, Rory has his problems and they are essentially why Allison has problems. But we wait for Rory to turn evil, and this never happens, because the horror trappings are there mainly to distract us from what is ultimately a movie about a marriage and a family.

Much of the film takes place in a huge estate that is far too large for the family of four. Its empty rooms and long hallways add to the gothic feel, once again leading us to anticipate horror. And horror underlies most scenes in The Nest, especially as the film progresses, but it isn't there to provide a base for scares, but instead to place the otherwise straightforward narrative in an unsettling context.

The ending is suitably open. I thought it implied a possible reconciliation for the family, while my wife thought Rory would never change. Nonetheless, I found it charmingly on target that when the kids make breakfast (after many scenes where Rory made it), they make sure to put Pepsi on the table.