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festival (murray lerner, 1967)

This is the twenty-seventh 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 27 is called "Concert Movie Week".

As a bit of a cooldown after last week, let's take some time to appreciate the efforts to transport the feelings of a live event into a smaller, more personal medium. Crank up the volume and get out the pyrotechnics.

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen concert movie. Here is a more focused ranked list and here is a larger compendium.

The kind of concert movie I like is just what the name suggests: a movie of a concert. I like to see the show progress ... think Stop Making Sense. I understand that some concert movies are documenting an event, that the event might be longer than a movie would be, that multiple performers might all want their moment in the sun. In those cases, I at least want to see complete performances of individual songs among the documentation of the event ... think Woodstock for the most part. I'm not a big fan of documentaries of concerts that essentially ignore the music, but I get the impulse to foreground what was happening off stage.

What I hate, though, is when a movie provides incomplete performances of individual songs. If a song is worthy of being included, and that song runs four minutes, I don't want to see only 90 seconds of that song.

Which is a long-winded way of saying that Festival has two strikes against it from the start, because it lacks complete performances. Think Don't Look Back, which for me works better as a document of Dylan's tour than it does as an example of a Dylan concert.

Festival, which has footage from three separate Newport Folk Festivals (1963-5), has plenty to offer people who want to reminisce. Among the performers (in partial performances) are Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Johnny Cash, Pete Seeger, Peter, Paul and Mary, Odetta, Judy Collins, Mississippi John Hurt, Son House, Howlin' Wolf, Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry, Buffy Sainte-Marie, The Staple Singers, Mimi and Richard Fariña, Donovan, Mike Bloomfield, and many more. But you can sit through the entire 97-minute film without seeing a complete performance of a song.

So OK, Festival at least works as a document, right? Well, yes but. The single most important cultural occurrence at those three Newport Folk Festivals came when Dylan "went electric". Festival comes in about a minute into the first of the electric songs, "Maggie's Farm", and what follows is only part of the rest of the song. Dylan and Mike Bloomfield are so fired up, even a truncated version is impressive, but it's not enough. Besides, while Festival gives a feel for what those events were like, it provides no context. You never know what year it is, which matters, especially when people in the crowd (almost always male) pontificate. And if you didn't already know the legend, all you would think of "Maggie's Farm" was that Dylan did a good job and Bloomfield sure can play guitar. The reality, which I described on Facebook as Bob Dylan opening the door while Mike Bloomfield put his boot to folk music and kicked it out that door, is missing from Festival.

So if it's enough for you to see historic performers in the 60s, either young (look at Judy Collins! look at Johnny Cash!) or old (look at Howlin' Wolf!), you'll enjoy Festival. If you want to actually experience historic performances, look elsewhere.

Festival was nominated for an Oscar for Best Documentary feature. 40 years later, Murray Lerner released The Other Side of the Mirror, a compilation of Dylan performances, from singing "With God on Our Side" with Joan Baez in 1963 and in 1964, to the cataclysmic "Maggie's Farm". Thus, we can watch Maggie in full glory:

geezer cinema/film fatales #111: promising young woman (emerald fennell, 2020)

Emerald Fennell is only 35, and she's already had quite the career. As an actress, she's had parts in several movies while also catching attention on television in Call the Midwife and, as Camilla Parker Bowles, in The Crown. As an author, she has written a few children's books and one adult novel. She took over as showrunner for the second season of Killing Eve. And now she has written, directed, and co-produced her first feature film, Promising Young Woman, earning Oscar nominations for all three of those duties. She is, to coin a phrase, a promising young woman (I can't be the first person to come up with that).

Promising Young Woman takes full advantage of Carey Mulligan in the title role. The supporting cast is excellent, featuring actors who, in many cases, have moved beyond "That Guy": Alison Brie, Laverne Cox, Alfred Molina, Connie Britton. (There are plenty of That Guys, too, like Clancy Brown, Jennifer Coolidge, and Molly Shannon.) Fennell shows a sure hand with these performers, many of whom shine in small parts that are nonetheless well-defined. And since Fennell not only directed the actors but wrote their dialogue, she deserves double credit.

Promising Young Woman also feels very much of its time, and it will be interesting to check it out in ten years to see if it feels like the remnants of a time long past, or if it retains its timeliness.  It's a revenge tale, and I'll avoid spoilers and stop there, but Mulligan is ferocious while giving us a sense of what is going on inside her character. I was reminded of another revenge story that didn't share a lot with this film but which came to my mind anyway, the short, cancelled-too-soon TV series Sweet/Vicious.

Promising Young Woman makes you look forward to whatever Fennell comes up with next. #755 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century.

music friday: csn&y, omd, s-k

Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, Oakland Coliseum, July 1974. Another Day on the Green show, with CSN&Y headlining. It was part of an ill-fated reunion tour from the oft-squabbling bandmates, one that didn't go well from their perspective, although it was financially successful (at least before the spending on drugs and the like). From our seats far into the upper deck of the Coliseum, their performance was disappointing, especially the acoustic segments. We preferred The Band, not just that afternoon but in general. Forty years later, they released CSNY 1974, a compilation of several shows from the tour. Here is an entire show from Wembley (I've started the video well into the concert, with "Don't Be Denied"):

Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, maybe the Kabuki Theater, sometime in the early 1980s? I include this, even though I can't remember the venue or the date, so I can retell a favorite anecdote. I'd won the tickets on the local college radio station and invited a friend along. This was early in the period when computers became an integral part of band performances, and I admit I was a bit too rockist to appreciate that tendency. So while it put a damper on the concert, I admit I thought it was funny that after a couple of songs, they announced that they would have to stop playing for a bit to fix a computer. In fairness, when they finally returned, they busted their ass to connect with the crowd. But I'll always think of it as the Night the Computers Died. Here is the video from one of my favorites of their songs:

Sleater-Kinney, Great American Music Hall, Greek Theatre, Fillmore Auditorium, Warfield Theater, Masonic Auditorium, Fox Theater, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2015, 2016, 2019. Not sure there's much I can add to all I have written about them in the past ... this link will take you to every blog post with the tag "Sleater-Kinney". As of this writing I have seen them 17 times, second only to Bruce Springsteen. I love them, and I miss Janet Weiss. Here they are in Paris in 2015, a month or so before we saw them for the first time in nine years:

minari (lee isaac chung, 2020)

The story of the Yi family in Minari is standard in most ways. The film isn't noteworthy because it breaks new ground in terms of storytelling. The basic story is familiar: American family moves across country hoping to make a new life, and are confronted with the problems of newness and the conflicts that develop when not all members of the family are on the same page. They try to create a successful farm while working day jobs. A standard situation ... except the Yi family is Korean (the kids are Korean-American). Their status as immigrants changes the story, but Lee Isaac Chung allows the familiar story to breathe, even as the Yi family's experience is different because of their background. The parents speak Korean to each other and to their kids, the kids speak English to each other and change smoothly between Korean and English when talking to their parents.

There is enough Korean spoken in the film that the Golden Globes gave it their Best Motion Picture - Foreign Language award, even though it takes place in the United States, and is written and directed by a man who was born and raised here. The Globes got some flack for this, and rightfully so. Minari shows a family in the process of becoming American, but the people in charge of the Golden Globes couldn't see past the Korean language.

Minari works for many reasons, and if the story is ordinary, the Korean perspective shines new light on that old story. Chung creates specific characters, not symbols, so while we see them as examples of the immigrant experience, it is more important how each character reacts to the new situation. Father Jacob is the one who prompted the move to Arkansas, and he is the one who most clearly wants to fulfill the American Dream. Mother Monica is out of place, not just in the community but in her family ... she and Jacob have had unspoken problems, and the move wasn't her idea. Young Anne is a typical kid, as is her younger brother David, but Chung draws a complex portrait of David ... he is practically the main character. Finally, there's Grandma Soonja, just arrived from Korea to help her daughter. She is unassimilated, and David, who is already an "American" whether or not he knows it, is suspicious of this woman, saying she isn't a real grandmother because she doesn't bake and because she "smells Korean".

This could all be sappy, but Chung mostly avoids that pitfall. The characters are interesting enough, and the setting of Koreans in Arkansas provides just enough difference from the otherwise standard narrative, so we are always engrossed in what happens. The film received six Oscar nominations, including two for Chung and one for Best Picture. Most noteworthy, because it reflects the movie's strengths, are the two acting nominations, Steven Yuen (Jacob) for Best Actor and Youn Yuh-jung (Grandma) for Best Supporting Actress. Yuen is wonderful, but when the envelope is opened, chances are extremely good that the name Chadwick Boseman will appear, and rightfully so. Youn has a better chance of winning ... I might go with Maria Bakalova from the new Borat film, but Youn has attracted a lot of love for her performance, and it would be a nice touch to see Youn, well-known and beloved in South Korea, win an Oscar at the same time that she is essentially introduced to American audiences at the age of 73. (She did have a small part in the late lamented Sense8.)

All of the above adds up to a fine picture. It's a deserving nominee for Best Picture, although my choice would be Judas and the Black Messiah (I've seen 7 of the 8 nominees so far). #551 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century.

simon of the desert (luis buñuel, 1965)

This is the twenty-sixth 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 26 is called "Transcendental Style in Film Week".

In 1972, Paul Schrader wrote a book on the wave of slow, contemplative art house cinema entitled "Transcendental style in film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer". In it, he examines the three titular directors' works and how their films apply a certain style that seems to transcend language. The original book focuses on the directors named, though in 2018, Schrader released a updated version with a new introduction that applies his framework to the 50+ years of cinema following the original publishing. Feel free to select a film from either group of films.

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen mentioned in Paul Schrader's "Transcendental Style in Film"Here is the original list of films and here is the list that includes all of the films mentioned in the new introduction.

I'm not sure how closely Simon of the Desert fits into a compendium of slow cinema. After all, it's only 45 minutes long ... how slow could it be? It's also interesting to consider what Buñuel is telling us about contemplative film (or anything else). The titular Simon spends his time atop a column, trying to connect with God through his ascetic life and near-constant examination of himself and the world. In short, Simon's life is contemplative to an extreme. But despite his efforts, his life is also meaningless ... at the least, his attempts to commune with God do not lead to enlightenment, and his actions are never as helpful as might be hoped. (Early on, he cures a man whose hands were cut off because he was a thief, restoring the hands to their original state. The man immediately smacks one of his kids upside the head.) If Simon is any example, Buñuel thinks the contemplative life is worthy of our disdain.

I'm surely looking at this wrong. No matter that I'm doing the Challenge, it doesn't really matter how the film fits into Schrader's framework. So from here, I'll try to take Simon of the Desert as its own work.

There are two stories about why it is so short. One is that the money ran out, so Buñuel came up with a quick (nonsensical) ending and finished. The other comes from Silvia Pinal, who plays Satan. She claims that the film was originally to be part of a three-piece anthology film, but that the concept didn't pan out (she blames herself) and so Buñuel just released his short movie as is. In any event, the ending is indeed nonsensical (it takes place in the 5th century, but at the end it jumps unexplained into the 1960s). Buñuel's work is full of things that don't make obvious sense, so I don't think the end hurts the film that much. But it is an abrupt break ... it's not like the movie is full of time shifts, just the one at the end.

Pinal makes a great Satan, because she is trying to make Simon give up his mission, and she exudes the kind of sexuality that clearly affects Simon. Does she break him down? It's hard to say ... if you count the sudden trip forward, when she and Simon are in a discotheque, perhaps she has succeeded. But ultimately, Buñuel is less interested in Simon's persistence and more interested in showing what a foolish mission it is. This is not a religious movie ... it's anti-religion.

I've liked every Buñuel film I have seen, including Simon of the Desert, with Los Olvidados at the top. Simon of the Desert strikes me as lesser Buñuel. #912 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time.

[Letterboxd list of Buñuel films I've seen]

revisiting the 9s: l.a. confidential (curtis hanson, 1997)

With this post, I begin a new series that will probably be VERY intermittent, if I remember to post at all. I've long known that while I have given my share of 10-out-of-10 ratings for movies over the years, in almost every case, those movies are fairly old. By rough count, I have only given the top rating to 16 non-documentaries from the 21st century. (For some reason, I don't have a problem giving tens to new documentaries.) So I got this idea to go back and revisit movies of relatively recent vintage that I gave a rating of 9, to see if time and perspective convinced me to bump that rating up to 10. Of course, it's always possible I'll drop the rating, but time will tell. The first movie in this series will be L.A. Confidential, which I last saw (and rated "9") in 2009. At that time, I wrote:

When I noticed that I had long ago give this movie a rating of 9 on a scale of 10, I was a bit surprised … I remembered liking it, but not THAT much. Well, I just watched it again, and it really is that good. Russell Crowe is a very scary force of nature in this one, and it’s easy to forget now that Americans didn't know anything about him at the time. Brutal, never boring, with characters who gradually emerge with more depth, not just to serve the plot but because the movie is interested in character.

(I notice that back in 2009, L.A. Confidential was #486 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time. It is currently at #726, which shows how our impressions change over time.)

L.A. Confidential turns out to be the perfect film for me to examine my "9-not-10" tendencies. Because, as I said 12 years ago, "it really is that good". Looking back, I see that I actually have given a 10 rating to one movie from 1997: Princess Mononoke, my favorite movie from one of my favorite film makers. That sets a pretty high standard, and while the two films are of completely different genres, one question I can try to answer is simple: do I think L.A. Confidential is as good as Princess Mononoke, or is it more on the level of other 9-of-10 films from 1997 (Jackie Brown, the documentary Waco: The Rules of Engagement)? I suspect that it's more to the point of this project to ask if I think L.A. Confidential is as good as, say, The Big Sleep, another noirish film set in Los Angeles that was released in 1946, is one of my very favorite movies, and one that I gave a rating of 10 out of 10. In other words, is the only reason I give a 10 to The Big Sleep and a 9 to L.A. Confidential that one came out before I was born and one came out 24 years ago?

I appreciate how trivial this is. I'm convinced more than ever that ratings systems are more flawed than perfect. But without over-stating the importance of 9 vs. 10, the reason I want to try this project is precisely to answer that question about when I am willing to say, "this movie is as good as it gets". It's not about being "fair" to movies like L.A. Confidential or Jackie Brown if I give them a 9. But I do want to examine the process whereby I mostly call a movie "as good as it gets" if it's an older picture. When I was a grad student, I detested the notion that age defined greatness, but it seems to have worn off on me nonetheless.

So ... after seeing it (at least) three times, am I ready to state that L.A. Confidential is as good as it gets?

I think so. It presents an image of toxic masculinity that emphasizes the toxic ... eventually we root for Bud White (Russell Crowe) and Ed Exley (Guy Pearce), but they are very unlikeable. (Kevin Spacey, who rounds out the three main male characters, is sleazy in a different way.) Crowe gives a performance for the ages; it's no surprise he got Best Actor Oscar nominations three years in a row starting in 2000 (winning once). He looks like Bud White: a blockheaded muscleman. And everyone treats him like one, not to mention he thinks of himself in that way. But there is always something in Crowe's eyes that lets you know there's something beneath the surface, and when Kim Basinger's Lynn Bracken falls for him, you believe her when she says she sees beneath the bravado. Pearce was arguably better known than Crowe in the States at the time for The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. He plays the intellectual, prissy cop ... he wears glasses and is regularly reminded by his colleagues to "lose the glasses", because they emphasize his lack of toxicity. Of course, Ed Exley turns out to be just as toxic as everyone else. What's funny is, Pearce was once a bodybuilder (winning Junior Mr. Victoria), and he likely could crush any of the other actors, but he keeps his shirt (and glasses) on and presents as the opposite of a bodybuilding stereotype.

The film does a good job of showing the men's gradual realization that things are not what they seem. It doesn't critique the toxicity ... you could argue toxicity wins in the end. But like Crowe's Bud White, L.A. Confidential is more than just a blockheaded muscleman. Meanwhile, it's Basinger who won the Oscar (no other actors were nominated). She's deserving enough, although I might have gone with Julianne Moore in Boogie Nights.

I haven't even talked about the recreation of Los Angeles in the 1950s (it's tremendous), and there is plenty of subtext besides the questioning of masculinity if you're so inclined. Yes, this movie is a 10.

music friday: pacific gas & electric, yusef lateef, robin trower

Pacific Gas & Electric, Fillmore West, June 1970. Later known simply as PG&E. They were a little-known band aside from their one hit, relying on the vocals of Charlie Allen. Christgau actually gave their 1969 album an A-. When I saw them, the headliners were Sha Na Na.

Yusef Lateef, Keystone Korner, ???. I probably shouldn't bother including them ... I can't even remember when we saw them (although I'm pretty sure it was late-70s/early-80s), nor can I remember any details of the show other than the venue. But I do remember seeing them, nonetheless, and it's so rare for me to have attended a jazz show, so here is Yusef Lateef, a multi-instrumentalist, perhaps not as famous as some jazz greats, but he recorded for more than 50 years.

Robin Trower, Oakland Coliseum 8-3-75; Winterland 5-8-76. I liked him enough to have seen him twice. The first was a Day on the Green (called "The British Are Coming") where Trower headlined a bill that included such big names as Fleetwood Mac, Peter Frampton, and Dave Mason. In some ways, he was the artist most suited to those outdoor shows than anyone I ever saw, because his long, distinctive guitar solos wafted above the Coliseum so delightfully. Trower, whose guitar added so much to Procol Harum, had quite a run in the 1970s, with four gold albums, two of them making the Top Ten. At the time, he was often compared to Hendrix ... I had a friend who actually said once that she thought when Hendrix died, his soul entered Trower. He is still at it in his mid-70s, having released an album last year with British reggae artist Maxi Priest. "Daydream" is so much my favorite of his songs that I will stop what I am doing to listen to any version that crosses my path ... I've spent more than a few hours on YouTube listening to one after another. It's still beautiful to this day. Here's one from Winterland in 1975 ... the singer/bass player, James Dewar, was an underrated, soulful vocalist.

In the early 2010s, British blues artist Chantel McGregor included a cover of "Daydream" on her first album, and she played it often enough and well enough (and long enough ... she'd been known to extend the song for upwards of 15 minutes) that I've listened to her versions on YouTube quite often as well.

geezer cinema: i care a lot (j blakeson, 2020)

The IMDB categorizes I Care a Lot as a comedy crime thriller, which is accurate enough ... I laughed at times, crimes take place, there are thrilling moments. It's not even a jumble for the first hour or so. Rosamund Pike does a lot to make the film cohere. She's great as Marla Grayson, the Bad Guy, and she manages to do some very over-the-top things while keeping what passes for calm. She's fun to watch ... that's where the comedy comes in, I guess. Peter Dinklage (Roman Lunyov) is a different kind of Bad Guy, and his acting isn't quite the same as Pike's ... he lets us see the effort his character puts into appearing calm, and also lets us see when his anger gets the best of him.

J Blakeson, who also wrote I Care a Lot, goes full bore into giving us what amounts to an evil, calculating person. Some people have found anti-capitalism undertones, and even some feminist empowerment. But the movie mostly feels like Blakeson wanted to give us a good time, which is how you end up with a comedy crime thriller.

Still, at some point, Blakeson has to address the central problem of the movie: the main character is essentially despicable, and the audience will only go so far before we realize Marla isn't a hero or an anti-hero, but a Bad Guy. When you reach that point, you have no one to root for. Honestly, I like movies filled with people who can't be salvaged, but Blakeson wants to give us a reason to turn to Marla's side. He solves this problem by bringing in Lunyov, who is an even worse person than Marla. Marla doesn't suddenly become good ... in fact, it's refreshing that she never comes around, never leaves the dark side. But when the two stars share scenes together, Marla is the one we gravitate towards, rather like voting for the least bad candidate in an unsatisfying election.

The way the two antagonists go at each other keeps I Care a Lot moving until the final scene, and you'll find it enjoyable as long as you leave your moral qualms in the theater lobby. The ending, though, feels like it was tacked on by censors from the era of the Code.

I Care a Lot is as despicable as its characters, and that's not necessarily a bad thing. But I felt it was less than the sum of its parts.

[Letterboxd list of Geezer Cinema movies]

film fatales #110: first cow (kelly reichardt, 2019)

Here I go with another attempt at a Kelly Reichardt movie. I was, as I said at the time, "bored shitless" by Old Joy. I had an easier time with Wendy and Lucy, which had the benefit of a fine performance by the reliable Michelle Williams. I wrote of both movies that they had "a good feel for nature (and the beautiful cinematography to go with it), a lack of a narrative thrust, and the willingness to take the time to let the film develop (if “develop” is the right word)." That is the defining feature of the Reichardt movies I've seen ... she takes her time. First Cow begins with a slow shot of a barge on a river moving from left to right across the screen. It takes a good 75 seconds before Reichardt cuts away, and honestly, I have no idea why the shot is even in the movie. It looks nice, but even there, we're up against an interesting situation, for Reichardt has chosen to shoot her film at 1.37:1, while the long barge seems made for a widescreen. Next we see Alia Shawkat on the beach picking at things in the dirt, and I like Alia Shawkat and looked forward to seeing what she was up to. (Spoiler alert: this turns out to be her only scene in the entire movie.) Her dog alerts her to something odd in the dirt, which turns out to be two skeletons lying side by side.

I'll return to this opening later. For now, suffice to say that the movie really begins after that scene. We're in Oregon in the early 19th-century. The central character is a chef who picks up the nickname "Cookie". He soon meets up with a Chinese immigrant (King-Lu), and their budding friendship is the heart of First Cow. Reichardt offers this quote from William Blake after the opening credits: "The bird a nest, the spider a web, man friendship." Neither man fits in well in the community. They are reminiscent of the men in Old Joy, yet what I hated about that earlier movie was the relationship between the men. I find Cookie and King-Lu to be much more congenial, and I didn't mind the slow pace as we got to know them and they got to know each other. First Cow is 40+ minutes longer than the other movies, but it was less boring to me.

Eventually a plot arrives. Cookie looks back on the delicious buttermilk biscuits he had eaten in the past, says milk would make the dry "bread" of the camp a lot more enjoyable, but there's no milk in that neck of the woods. Except the richest person in the area has acquired a cow. There were supposed to be three, but the male and the baby died in transit, leaving only the mom. While he awaits the arrival of another bull, he at least appreciates that he can use the cow for milk. Of course, Cookie and King-Lu have figured out the same thing.

There's no need to say more ... even a low-key movie like this has spoilers. Meanwhile, Reichardt gives us what is essentially a Western, with many of the typical themes of the genre: man in the wilderness, on the frontier, civilization gradually making headway. It's all very subtle, and adds to the overall feel that First Cow is deeper than it appears.

Ah, but there's that first scene. Not sure how much of a spoiler this is, given that what I'm about to describe takes place in the first minutes of the movie. Although I was clueless about basic information like what Alia Shawkat was wearing, it becomes apparent that her scene took place in modern times. (I say "apparent", but I actually didn't even notice until later when I read about the film.) There are other possible connections between her scene and what happens in the 19th century, although Reichardt leaves everything ambiguous. Since I am regularly frustrated when something I watch says "five months earlier" after an opening scene, you'd think I would admire the way Reichardt lets us figure it out for ourselves. Since I didn't figure it out until long past the end of the movie, though, well, color me frustrated.

Still, I liked First Cow at least as much as I liked Wendy and Lucy. Kelly Reichardt has a very specific, personal style of film making, and more power to her. It really helps, though, if you know going in that she will force you to slow down to her pace.

This video essay by Thomas Flight does an excellent job of making a case for the excellence of First Cow. It makes me feel a bit dumb, but in a good way, because I learned from it. Don't watch it if you haven't seen the movie. #126 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century.

[Letterboxd list of Film Fatales movies]