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a hero (asghar farhadi, 2021)

Asghar Farhadi is one of our greatest living directors. I've written about some of his films before:

About Elly (2009). "Farhadi has a way of getting inside his characters, exposing them, helping us understand them even when they are acting poorly."

A Separation (2011). "There are no bad characters in the movie, and everyone seems to be trying to live a good and moral life. But they don’t all agree on what is good and moral, and the realities of their lives make compromise almost inevitable."

The Past (2013). "Farhadi takes his time … we meet the main characters, get a feeling for their interactions, see that things are irritable at best. And then we start learning more about the events we thought had been covered in the time the characters were introduced. Watching it unravel is fascinating."

A common theme is the attention Farhadi pays to his characters. They are at the center of his movies, they are complex, they are always both likable and not, although given Farhadi's empathy with those characters, we end up liking them more than we don't. 

The title of this movie is ironic ... the central character, Rahim, follows an arc from prisoner to acclaimed hero and back again, and even his acclaimed status is based on lies. Little lies, to be sure. Rahim is in debtor's prison, and while it's clear how he ended up there, it feels a bit unfair nonetheless. Amir Jadidi, who plays Rahim, has a winning smile, and from the start we are on his side. His heroic act, returning a bag filled with gold coins even though he could use them to help pay off his debts, is the "right" thing to do. But then events overtake the life of this ordinary man. There are cultural reasons why he can't be completely honest about the bag (his girlfriend is the one who finds it, but he claims the act as his own because their affair is a secret one). And once you twist the truth just a little bit, it's increasingly difficult to get your story straight. We understand the need for the little lie, and we don't think less of Rahim because of it. But then others get involved. The story gets out. The prison where he stays wants to turn him into a public example of the possibilities of rehabilitation. He is used by charities to raise money. But one person is obsessed with the little lie, which he suspects hides something bigger. It's Bahram, the man who put him in prison, the man to whom Rahim owes money. Bahram thinks his pride is being insulted; he doesn't believe he did anything wrong in taking Rahim to task for the borrowed money, and it feels like he's jealous that this lowlife is receiving hosannas from the public. As usual for Farhadi, no one is all good and right or all bad and wrong, and events conspire to turn Rahim's life to shit.

I consider A Separation to be one of the best films of our time, but Farhadi has never given us anything less than excellence. Add A Hero to that list.

geezer cinema/african-american directors series/film fatales #130: zola (janicza bravo, 2020)

The inspiration for Zola is more interesting than the film itself. The story was told as a Twitter thread which went viral. Rolling Stone ran a piece by David Kushner, "Zola Tells All: The Real Story Behind the Greatest Stripper Saga Ever Tweeted". In that article, Kushner showed that Zola's Twitter story was essentially true. James Franco was involved early in the process of turning the story into a film, but he dropped/was dropped off when he was confronted with sexual harassment charges. Eventually, Janicza Bravo, who had a handful of shorts, one feature, and lots of TV work on her resume, took over as director and co-screenwriter (with Jeremy O. Harris).

Zola is a waitress and part-time pole dancer in Detroit who meets Stefani, another stripper, who convinces Zola to join her on a road trip to Florida, where she says the two can make big bucks stripping. What ensues is a tale of sex trafficking, as Stefani works as a prostitute for a pimp while Zola wonders what she has gotten into. As my wife said, it was a case of "bad decisions on top of bad decisions". The "based on a true story" angle means actions that seem ludicrously pumped-up for sizzle appeal apparently happened. Which doesn't make the accusations of bad decisions wrong, but there is no denying it affects how we view the characters and their actions.

Bravo does some interesting things turning tweets into cinema, and Taylour Paige is excellent as Zola. Riley Keough is an effective choice to play Stefani. Stefani is a white character made especially unlikable in the way she emulates what she thinks is "black". (The IMDB tells us that Keough "had to get special training on how to play a white woman trying very offensively to sound a certain type of 'black.'") As the IMDB also reminds us, Keough's casting as a white person appropriating black culture is a bit ironic, given that her grandfather was Elvis Presley.

Colman Domingo (Euphoria) as the pimp is friendly and menacing when needed, and he is another positive aspect to the movie. Still, while I feel odd complaining about the actions of characters when those actions mostly actually happened, nonetheless Zola isn't as much a warning about the dangers of sex trafficking as it is an example of people who are just clueless enough to get into trouble.

[Letterboxd list of Geezer Cinema movies]

[Letterboxd list of Film Fatales movies]

music friday: winterland, january 28, 1973

This was the second of two nights for this gig. Opening was The Bar-Kays, who were Otis Redding's backup band when he died in a plane crash that also took the lives of most of the Bar-Kays. In 1972, they appeared at Wattstax:

Next up was local band Tower of Power, out of Oakland. They had already released two albums, which featured songs like "Back on the Streets Again", "Down to the Nightclub", and "You're Still a Young Man". John Wasserman wrote about the Winterland shows in the San Francisco Chronicle. He described Tower of Power (making reference to the "temporary absence of lead singer Rick Stevens," who actually had left the band by then.

Tower of Power’s set was good T of P but not vintage, mainly due to the temporary absence of lead singer Rick Stevens. Good Tower of Power means tight, funky, grinding, pushing, shoving, unrelenting street-corner soul rock with no wasted motion.... In the absence of freedom to dance, however, they are also too even, in terms of sameness of sound, of grinding (the word is more applicable than any other) rhythm section punctured and harassed by horns. “Didn’t they just play that one?” inquired a non-veteran observer as the band cranked into a new song.

You can hear their set at Wolfgang's. Here they are in 1973:

Headlining was Curtis Mayfield. Wasserman again:

Sunday afternoon he received a proclamation from the city of Berkeley and Mayor Warren Widener declared the day as Curtis Mayfield Day. The Rainbow Sign, the Berkeley black art and culture center, stated that “Curtis Mayfield exerts the strongest influence on black youth of any performer in the country today.”

The Sunday night set, which went over an hour and was greeted with great enthusiasm, opened with a soft, sweet “Gimme Some Love” and then marched on through the likes of “Superfly” (gold single), “Love Child,” “Stone Junkie,” “Pusher Man,” “Sure is Funky,” “Stare and Stare” and “Freddie’s Dead” (gold single); a set dominated, obviously by songs from “Superfly,” — songs which discuss the ugly reality of drugs in the ghetto with neither shrill moralizing nor smug acceptance. It is not a life I must live and I don’t relate to it in the manner of those who do. But the descriptions and emotions are plainly valid and perceptive.

Here is Mayfield on Midnight Special in 1973:

And an interview on Soul Train from the same year:

grand piano (eugenio mira, 2013)

This is the nineteenth film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2021-22", "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 7th annual challenge, and my third time participating (my first year can be found at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20", and last year's at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2020-21"). Week 19 is called "Dee-lightful Week":

One of my favorite running weekly challenges. No real connection between these four artists other than the surface level name they partially share. At least you'll have plenty to choose from!

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen film starring and/or directed by Dee ReesDee WallaceRuby Dee. or Billy Dee Williams.

A goofy challenge. Last year it was "Ray, Ray, Ray, or Wray Week" (I watched Aparajito), while the year before that it was "Leigh, Leigh, Leigh, or Leigh Week" (I watched Welcome to Me). I had intended to watch the Dee Rees film Bessie, but my recording kept skipping, so I switched to a Dee Wallace movie. Which is a bit of a misnomer. I spent the entire movie looking for the E.T. star and never recognized her. Turns out she had one scene as an interviewer speaking on a phone, so her face never appeared.

Grand Piano is a compact (90 minutes, including 12-minute closing credits) thriller that offers nothing new but is effective nonetheless. Elijah Wood plays a famed concert pianist who comes out of retirement and finds trouble during his concert. It's in the tradition of Phone Booth, another movie with an unseen sniper keeping the hero in place. While he doesn't show his face until the climax, the voice of the sniper is recognizable as John Cusack. (It's an offbeat moment of humor when the two characters finally meet ... Cusack's 6'2" frame towers over Wood's 5'6".) I'm unfamiliar with the Spanish director Eugenio Mira ... he gets the job done here. Screenwriter Damien Chazelle wrote 10 Cloverfield Lane and Whiplash, two good but problematic movies. Everyone is fine here, if you don't kind the lack of ambition to do anything out of the ordinary. As a fan of Halt and Catch Fire, I am always glad to see Kerry Bishé. Grand Piano does its business and goes home, which is sometimes just what is needed.

night and the city (jules dassin, 1950)

Classic film noir, and a high point in the career of Jules Dassin. The oft-told story is that Dassin was about to be blacklisted, and Darryl F. Zanuck sent him to England to make Night and the City, unencumbered by the blacklist. It is now seen as one of his best films, second only to Rififi. There are two versions of the movie ... I saw the "American" version.

The very title of the movie suggests film noir ... "Night and the City" could be the title of an essay on noir. Jo Eisinger's screenplay is taut, and the cinematography of Mutz Greenbaum is appropriate. At times, the London underworld seems like Paris in the French New Wave, with the love of the city that the New Wave often demonstrated. Richard Widmark plays Harry Fabian, a low-level con man with big dreams. You know from the start that his dreams will be thwarted, and Widmark is brilliant as a man who sees his future fall apart even as he is living it. Gene Tierney plays the closest thing to a sympathetic character. Googie Withers steals most of her scenes.

I don't know how it played with audiences in 1950, but Harry's big scheme, to take over the pro wrestling world in London, seems a bit absurd. It's all treated quite seriously, with a subplot where a classic "real" wrestler played by "real" wrestler Stanislaus Zbyszko (he was 50) takes umbrage at the new, "sports entertainment" angle represented by Mike Mazurki (who also wrestled professionally). There is a terrific ring battle between the two, but nonetheless, I couldn't quit thinking it was silly (and I like pro rassling).

But that's a minor quibble. Widmark grabs the screen, the atmosphere is suitably ominous, and Night and the City is as good as people say it is.

geezer cinema: the last duel (ridley scott, 2021)

Ridley Scott is not a hack. When I see his name in the credits, I don't decide not to watch. But I don't seek out his movies, either. He's #90 on my Directors list, which sounds good but there are only 100 directors on the list. Outside of Black Rain, none of the Ridley Scott movies I've seen have been awful, and there are some good ones mixed in there as well (I am not the biggest Blade Runner fan, but I have come to accept that it's a good one). For me, though, Thelma and Louise is easily his best, so much so that I'm always surprised to remember he was involved in that one. I'm inclined to give credit to Callie Khouri, who wrote the screenplay, although to be honest I don't know her other work.

The Last Duel is one of the good ones, much better than House of Gucci, his other 2021 film. It's 2 1/2 hours long, but it doesn't feel bloated, perhaps because of its structure: a story told from the perspective of the three main participants, so that it feels more like three 45-minute movies.

Ridley and his crew do an excellent job of convincing us we're watching the 14th century. The main actors (Matt Damon, Adam Driver, and especially Jodie Comer) are great, although the supporting cast is a bit hit-or-miss, and Ben Affleck never overcomes his bizarre hairdo. Damon and Affleck wrote the script ... more importantly, Nicole Holofcener was brought in (Damon said she was added to to help them write the female perspectives of the screenplay). Comer's character, Marguerite,  is mistreated by the men in ways that seem OK to those men, who don't see what they are doing wrong, but by the end of the movie, we have seen things from Marguerite's point of view, and it is that which lifts The Last Duel above the norm.

As is the case with this kind of Rashomon structure, the question arises who, if anyone, is telling "the truth". But it's clear that Marguerite is the one to trust (Scott called people who thought otherwise "morons" and he's not far off). So you've got a movie with good star performances, good recreations of a time long past, and an interesting perspective on how people see themselves and their actions. I don't see how it's as good as Thelma and Louise, but it is indeed one of Scott's good ones.

[Letterboxd list of Geezer Cinema movies]

music friday: the trips festival, 1966

The Trips Festival took place in San Francisco over three days, January 21-23, 1966. Quotes from Tom Wolfe's The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test:

The Trips Festival was billed as a big celebration that was going to simulate an LSD experience, minus the LSD, using light effects and music, mainly....

“An LSD experience without LSD”—that was a laugh. In fact, the heads are pouring in by the hundreds, bombed out of their gourds, hundreds of heads coming out into the absolute open for the first time....

A hulking crazed whirlpool. That’s nice. Lights and movies sweeping around the hall; five movie projectors going and God knows how many light machines, interferrometrics, the intergalactic science-fiction seas all over the walls, loudspeakers studding the hall all the way around like flaming chandeliers, strobes exploding, black lights with Day-Glo objects under them and Day-Glo paint to play with, street lights at every entrance flashing red and yellow, two bands, the Grateful Dead and Big Brother and the Holding Company and a troop of weird girls in leotards leaping around the edges blowing dog whistles—and the Pranksters....

Three nights the huge wild carnival went on. It was a big thing on every level. For one thing, the Trips Festival grossed $12,500 in three days, with almost no overhead, and a new nightclub and dance-hall genre was born. Two weeks later Bill Graham was in business at the Fillmore auditorium with a Trips Festival going every weekend and packing them in. For the acid heads themselves, the Trips Festival was like the first national convention of an underground movement that had existed on a hush-hush cell-by-cell basis. The heads were amazed at how big their own ranks had become—and euphoric over the fact that they could come out in the open, high as baboons, and the sky, and the law, wouldn’t fall down on them. The press went along with the notion that this had been an LSD experience without the LSD. Nobody in the hip world of San Francisco had any such delusion, and the Haight-Ashbury era began that weekend.

Here is some video from the Festival. The music is the Grateful Dead playing "Viola Lee Blues":

The Dead's first album was released in 1967. Everyone agreed it failed to capture the band's live sound. It wasn't a hit ... there wasn't much interest in it as a Top 40 tune, and FM "Underground" radio was a few months away. There was a single from that album, and it got played on Bay Area radio ... I had to have heard it somewhere (I was 13). I was never a Dead Head, and the A-side of the single, "The Golden Road (To Unlimited Devotion)", remains a favorite of mine to this day ... it's a lovely fantasy of life in the Haight in 1967:

See that girl, barefootin' along,
Whistlin' and singin', she's a carryin' on.
There's laughing in her eyes, dancing in her feet,
She's a neon-light diamond and she can live on the street.
Hey hey, hey, oh, by the way, come and (party every day)
Hey hey, hey, oh, by the way, come and (party every day)
Well everybody's dancin' in a ring around the sun
Nobody's finished, we ain't even begun.
So take off your shoes, child, and take off your hat.
Try on your wings and find our where it's at.
Hey hey, hey, come (party every day)
Hey hey, hey, come (party every day)
Take a vacation, fall out for a while,
Summer's comin' in, and it's goin' outa style.
Well lite up smokin' buddy, have yourself a ball.
Cause your mother's down in Memphis, won't be back 'till the fall.
Hey hey, hey, come right away
Come and join the (party every day)

I can't overstate how much this was all part of my ambition in 1967: to be a hippie.

manos: the hands of fate (harold p. warren, 1966)

This is the eighteenth film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2021-22", "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 7th annual challenge, and my third time participating (my first year can be found at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20", and last year's at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2020-21"). Week 18 is called "One-and-Done Week":

At least no one can say they didn't try. Though the reason behind some of these single directorial filmographies may be apparent upon viewing, there are certainly a number of filmmakers who left us wanting more after just one outing. A fun, grab-bag experiment.

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen film by a director who has only directed one film. Here is a smaller list with focus on notable names, and here is a larger compendium.

The story goes that Howard Hawks and Ernest Hemingway were fishing together, and Hawks told Hemingway he could make a good movie out of Hemingway's worst book, which Hawks said was To Have and Have Not. The resulting film was a hit. Maybe it came from a bad novel, but it had Howard Hawks as a director. It starred Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, with a supporting cast of everyone from Walter Brennan to Hoagy Carmichael.  At one point, William Faulkner came in to work on the script. Even coming from a poor source, Hawks and Warner Brothers could produce something fun.

Some 20 years later, Sterling Silliphant, who had written mostly for television and who later won an Oscar for Best Screenplay, met a man named Harold P. Warren. Warren, an insurance and fertilizer salesman, bet Silliphant he could make a horror movie all on his own. Silliphant took up the bet. Now, Warren wasn't Howard Hawks. Warner Brothers wasn't bankrolling the affair (Warren got the money together himself, eventually getting $19,000). With such a low budget, he couldn't pay the cast or the crew, so he gave them a cut of the hoped-for profits. Warren also saved money by directing, writing, producing, and starring in the film. With no budget for cast or crew, Warren wasn't going to get Walter Brennan or Hoagy Carmichael, so the rest of the cast was culled from local talent. The result, Manos: The Hands of Fate was no To Have and Have Not ... instead, it regularly makes Worst Movie Ever lists.

It was the only movie Warren ever directed ... I'm pretty sure it was the only movie any of the people associated with it ever made. It is godawful. It's not worth the time to list everything that is wrong with the movie. It's impossible to see any vision that Warren might have had, the way Ed Wood movies, bad as they were, often were recognizably Ed Wood movies. There isn't a single moment worth watching.

The film was mostly forgotten ... heck, it only had a few local screenings in 1966. But then it turned up as an episode on Mystery Science Theater 3000, and it became an "instant" cult classic. Even if you are not a fan of MST3K, you'll probably find their version more watchable than the original, Because the original was just that bad.

the cloud-capped star (ritwik ghatak, 1960)

This is the seventeenth film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2021-22", "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 7th annual challenge, and my third time participating (my first year can be found at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20", and last year's at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2020-21"). Week 17 is called "Parallel Cinema & New Indian Cinema Week":

Though not exactly the same movements, in the interest of availability, I've combined the two into one week.

From Wikipedia:

"Parallel cinema, or New Indian Cinema, was a film movement in Indian cinema that originated in the state of West Bengal in the 1950s as an alternative to the mainstream commercial Indian cinema.

Inspired by Italian Neorealism, Parallel Cinema began just before the French New Wave and Japanese New Wave, and was a precursor to the Indian New Wave of the 1960s. The movement was initially led by Bengali cinema and produced internationally acclaimed filmmakers such as Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen, Ritwik Ghatak, Tapan Sinha and others. It later gained prominence in other film industries of India.

It is known for its serious content, realism and naturalism, symbolic elements with a keen eye on the sociopolitical climate of the times, and for the rejection of inserted dance-and-song routines that are typical of mainstream Indian films."

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen Parallel or New Indian Cinema film.

This was a good challenge for me, because I am woefully uneducated about Indian cinema. I've seen a handful of Satyajit Ray movies and a Bollywood movie or two, but I had never heard of New Indian Cinema, and didn't know any of the notable directors outside of Ray. I have no idea if The Cloud-Capped Star is indicative of the work of Ritwik Ghatak, or Parallel cinema in general, but it's an impressive movie on its own.

The Cloud-Capped Star reminded me of many other films. The heroine, Neeta, played by Supriya Choudhury, a legend in Bengali cinema who was new to me, suffers so much she could have been the central figure in a Lars von Trier movie. Neeta is too kind, too willing to put others ahead of herself. Ghatak often uses close-ups that seem like they came from silent movies. The faces tell us so much, even when the character is not speaking, but the acting styles are modern, not overdone as can be the case in silents. Only a small portion of the film takes place in the city, but when it does, it is reminiscent of the way real locations were used in the French New Wave:

Also, Ghatak gets eerie passages by his use of sound. If shooting in a natural setting seems "real", his use of sound is often surreal:

All of this may remind us of other movies, but the combination is unique. The Cloud-Capped Star is engrossing on many levels, and an eye-opener into the world of Bengali cinema beyond Satyajit Ray.