Previous month:
January 2022
Next month:
March 2022

african-american directors series: attica (stanley nelson, 2021)

Documentaries that pretend to objectivity are usually that, pretend. A point of view is there whether or not the film makers are open about it. Attica has a point of view: that the inmates had righteous grievances, and that the state (personified by Nelson Rockefeller) brutally and murderously shut it down. If you don't accept this, then you will likely have problems with Attica.

Stanley Nelson compiles footage from the event, adds current interviews with some of the participants who are still alive, and tells a compelling and infuriating story. The basic facts are there ... prisoners rebel, take hostages, make demands, observers enter the picture (many of them well-known), change seems possible, and then the whip comes down. People are dead, people are tortured, all at the hands of the state. When it is found out that several of the hostages died, the state claims their throats were cut by inmates. Which stands until the medical examiner says no one's throat was slashed, that they all died of shootings by the authorities.

Nelson presents an air-tight case. The problem, as is often the case with documentaries, is that what we see is selective. Nelson has a point to make, and he chooses what to show us to help make his point. This isn't exactly false, except by omission. There are a lot of questions to be asked, if you think beyond the film itself. Nelson's work is so powerful that those questions don't necessarily jump to the surface. I was convinced, but then, I came to the film already assuming the prison authorities and politicians up to and including Rockefeller were corrupt. (Nelson adds Nixon's name to the list of infamy.) I believed what I saw, and after the fact, I still believe. But this is not a perfect movie just because I agree with it.


euphoria

Earlier this month, Google News paired two headlines in my feed. The first, from The Guardian, read "Coming down: why has shock teen show Euphoria become such a drag?" The second, from Variety, said "'Euphoria' Season 2 Viewership Is Up Nearly 100% From Season 1". You might see this as evidence that audiences are getting dumber, but since I don't agree with the Guardian's take, I'm inclined to think viewership is up because people have caught on to the show. Not sure why this would be ... Season One was what we once called a "water cooler show" that everyone wanted to talk about. I don't know where those 100% more viewers came from. I know that I am pretty much the only person I know who watches Euphoria. I haven't convinced any of my friends to tune in. But the virtual water cooler is on fire over the series.

Creator Sam Levinson wrote and directed every episode this season, so you know who to praise or blame. Euphoria is so erratic ... let's just say it, the show is a mess ... that you find yourself praising and blaming simultaneously. Levinson is fearless about showing off, and that over-the-top feeling is one of the best parts of Euphoria, except when it's the worst. You won't be bored watching the show ... Levinson won't allow it.

Unsurprisingly, some people criticize the show for glamorizing drug addiction, to which I say, what show are they watching? Yes, there is plenty of glitz and glam, but it's largely external. The addicts in the show are essentially miserable, and you'd have to be an idiot to want to live their lives. Rue, the central character played by Zendaya, is even worse off for most of Season Two. There is nothing about her life that would make you think "I want to do drugs". Even the fact that she is played by Zendaya, a fashionable, popular, beautiful actress, doesn't make Rue's life appealing, because Zendaya, who deserved becoming the youngest-ever winner of a Best Drama Actress Emmy, is remarkable at turning down the glam. In fact, this is often an easy way to awards recognition: be glamourous, but play an unglamorous part, and people will mistake it for acting. Except that Zendaya truly is amazing. As if to ensure she gets Emmy consideration again, an entire episode of Season Two is devoted to Rue scraping bottom (and Zendaya delivers).

One problem with Season Two is that some popular characters are largely abandoned for no apparent reason. Hunter Schafer, who plays trans character Jules, a sometimes-love partner of Rue, isn't around nearly enough for me in Season Two, and other fans can say the same about their own favorite actors/characters. A few characters are given more to do, and the actors gobble up the opportunity. Best is Sydney Sweeney as Cassie, the girl with big boobs and a slut reputation. Sweeney does great work with a character that could be a stereotype.

The season climaxes with a two-episode combo where Cassie's sister Lexi puts on a school play about the lives of her, her family, and her friends. There are plenty of outrageous scenes, as Levinson blends the characters in the play with their "real life" counterparts ... it gets confusing at times, but it mostly works, and after almost two seasons of listening to Rue's narration (and her subsequent unreliable point of view), it's interesting to see these people from the perspective of a different character.

Levinson also did something unusual during the long COVID break. He shot two episodes that were shown between the two seasons. Both episodes were basically two characters in a simple setting (perfect for COVID filming), and they completely avoided the overkill that usually makes Euphoria such an extravagant mess.


film fatales #132: elena (petra costa, 2012)

This is the twenty-third 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 23 is called "Essentially Brazilian Week":

Was already thinking of making this list a weekly theme for this Season's Challenge, and this comment from a Brazilian Letterboxd user sealed the deal:

"Here on Brazil, our cinema is underappreciated, people just watch bad comedy movies and have a group who says we have a bad cinema, they don't know the classics and they think we just have five good movies: Dog's Will, Central Station, the two Elite Squad movies and City of God. See lists like this makes me happy,"

-O Legado Cinematográfico

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen Essential Brazilian film from Lost in Film's's list.

Another example of why I like doing this challenge: I knew nothing about Elena, or Petra Costa for that matter. Of the 107 films on the Essential Brazilian list, I'd only seen four. So welcome to a new experience.

Turns out, Elena is a documentary, which I didn't know ... OK, I'll quit, you get the point, I am clueless. The title character, Elena, is the older sister of the director, Petra Costa. Only one other person appears in the cast list, and she is Elena and Petra's mom. Petra Costa uses a combination of sources to construct her movie. There are home movies (Elena got her first movie camera when she was 13), an old diary of Elena's, and interviews Petra conducted with people in Elena's life. Elena, an aspiring actress, had moved to New York when Petra was 7 years old. After a return to Brazil, Elena is accepted into a university in New York, and she returns there, with her mother and Petra moving with her.

During that time, Elena kills herself ... it's not explained why, her family doesn't know, and that compounds their grief with the feeling they might have been part of the cause. The core of the film is Petra working her way through her relationship with Elena. She looked up to her big sister, and later identified with her (people comment on how much Petra looks like Elena). There is a sense that Petra is struggling not to repeat Elena's sad ending.

I was reminded more than once of Sarah Polley's great movie Stories We Tell. Polley deconstructs the rules of documentary and then puts them back together. Costa's film has arty touches, but it is a more straightforward documentary than Polley's film. And perhaps not as involving for the viewer, although I can imagine if you'd been through a similar experience to Costa, you would be very involved. Elena is not off-putting, but it is insular, a bit distancing. It's a strong movie, nonetheless.


music friday: february 25, 1976, fillmore auditorium

Canned Heat opened the show. This was a few months before their first album. This clip is from the Monterey Pop Festival in June of '67.

The Otis Rush Chicago Blues Band was next. Rush had recorded plenty of singles, but no album until 1968-9, making this Fillmore show an evening where no one had an actual album out yet. This is from 1966 (and the video is colorized):

I wrote about the night's headliner, the Grateful Dead, a month ago. Their first album was released a few weeks after this show. Here is a clip from a local TV special in 1967 that featured the Dead:

Here's a Spotify playlist of some of the above artists' recordings from around 1967 (the Otis Rush is older):


geezer cinema: licorice pizza (paul thomas anderson, 2021)

We went to a movie theater for the first time in a couple of months. Chose a movie at a place where you can pick your reserved seats in advance, meaning we could see only a few people would be there and our seats would be mostly isolated from anyone else who showed up. When we got to our seats, we found a family of four who apologized, explaining that they had moved from their own seats because they had been seated in the disabled section, which separated them with spaces in between the four seats. We said no problem, and took the same seats on the other side of the row. After the movie started, the family got up and left. We can only assume the reason their seats were goofy is because they were in the wrong theater. As soon as Licorice Pizza started up, they left.

I've seen quite a few of Paul Thomas Anderson's movies. I liked Magnolia the most, and have fond memories of Boogie Nights. I am not much of a fan of There Will Be Blood. I've been looking forward to this one because of Alana Haim, and she didn't disappoint in her acting debut.

The movie was a bit long, and there were a couple of scenes that had weird racist stereotypes towards Japanese ... bad enough right there, but I couldn't figure out why the scenes were even in the movie, and when a film is a bit long, I get impatient with the excess. How you feel about the ending will likely depend on what you think of the age difference between the two lovebirds. The most common point people make is that if the genders were switched, and it was a 25-year-old man partnered with a 15-year-old girl, it would be creepy. So the question is, does it matter that here, it's a 25-year-old woman and a 15-year-old boy? I don't have an easy answer. Haim and Cooper Hoffman (another debut ... he's the son of Philip Seymour Hoffman) are both wonderful, which matters because if there is no chemistry between the two people in a rom-com, there's no movie. It's understandable why the teenaged boy is infatuated with the grown-up woman. It's not so clear why she is interested in him. As she says, answering her own question, "I think it's weird that I hang out with Gary and his 15-year-old friends all the time." Because I never quite understood why he meant so much to her, the ending seemed abrupt. Much as I was enjoying the movie, and loving Alana, I really didn't want to see them get together in the end. My wife was less conflicted ... she thought it was just wrong, because of the age difference.

Ultimately, I was more bothered by the Japanese stereotypes. And I was sorry Alana Haim didn't get an Oscar nomination.

[Letterboxd list of Geezer Cinema movies]


the eyes of tammy faye (michael showalter, 2021)

Jessica Chastain can sing. That's not the reason she has a deserving Oscar nomination for Best Actress, and to be honest, I was out of the loop enough on the Bakkers that I'm not sure I even knew that Tammy Faye sang. But I definitely didn't know Chastain was such a good singer, and I'm surprised that she says she doesn't like singing in front of the camera.

Chastain is the best thing about The Eyes of Tammy Faye, which is yet another biopic that pretends to tell the real story while only getting things partly right. Roles like these are made for Oscar acclaim ... six of the ten Best Actor/Actress nominees this year feature roles based on real people. In the 21st century, nine Best Actor awards and ten Best Actress awards have gone to such roles. Chastain disappears into the part of Tammy Faye ... besides her great work, give it up for Stephanie Ingram, Linda Dowds, and Justin Raleigh, who got the movie's other Oscar nomination for Makeup and Hairstyling. But it's things like makeup and hair styles that convince some people an actor is doing a great job, and that's not fair to Chastain, who gives us a Tammy Faye that is an actual human being.

It's almost a cliché anymore to start a movie with some version of "based on a true story". The Eyes of Tammy Faye goes a step further ... it's based on a documentary with the same name. This doubles the distance between what happened and what we see ... this movie isn't based on a true story, it's based on a movie about the true story.

Jessica Chastain makes it all worthwhile, and The Eyes of Tammy Faye is rarely boring. But there is a reason it got Oscar nominations for Actress and Makeup, but none for Picture or Director or Writer or Cinematographer.


music friday: poly styrene: i am a cliché (celeste bell & paul sng, 2021)

I Am a Cliché is a mixture of approaches that don't always cohere, not that it matters too much. It tells the story of Poly Styrene, lead singer of the punk band X-Ray Spex. It is told in part by her daughter, Celeste Bell, who is co-director of the film and who appears throughout. And, to a much smaller extent, it's the story of punk rock.

Poly Styrene is a fascinating person, worthy of a feature-length film. I found myself wanting more of her, although the story her daughter tells is vital to the film's point of view. At times, though, we move from learning about Poly Styrene to learning what is was like to have Poly Styrene for a mother, which itself is worthy of a film. It makes sense that the two stories are combined here. I just felt like each of those stories deserved more space. Still, it's hard to make a boring film with Poly Styrene at its center.

My reactions are mixed. Am I to look at this as I would any other documentary about a musician? Or is the film overwhelmed by my interest in Styrene and her band? Do I write about the film, or the music? And what about the person at the center (and her daughter)? I may be obsessing in the wrong direction ... I liked I Am a Cliché, although my main interest was in Poly Styrene. You wouldn't go here to look at what the punk community in England in the late-70s was like, because it's not about the community as much as it's about Styrene.

She was about the same age when X-Ray Spex started as Billie Eilish is now. In both cases, there's a precocity that impresses. To realize that these teenagers are so astute about music and culture, and so attuned to writing great lyrics, shouldn't surprise me, but it always does. But again, this is me talking about music when I'm supposedly writing about a movie.

I'm glad the film exists, glad that Celeste Bell was able to connect with her mother in the process of making the movie. But I came to the film for one reason: it's was about a musician I liked. It could have been worse ... it's easy to imagine a biopic that fudged with facts and garbled the context of the times.

I also watched a 1979 segment from a BBC show ... the episode was called "Who Is Poly Styrene?" I love that the BBC thought she was worthy of this.

Here is X-Ray Spex with their most famous song:

And here is an essay I wrote many years ago that was later published in an anthology:

"Oh Bondage Up Yours!: Thoughts on the Rhino Punk Anthology"


geezer cinema: pig (michael sarnoski, 2021)

Nicolas Cage was shut out of the Oscar nominations, although he was talked about as a possibility before hand. This may tell us something about the Oscars. Three nominations each in the Best Actor and Actress categories went to people playing actual historical people (Jonathan Larson, Desi Arnaz, Richard Williams, Tammy Faye Bakker, Princess Diana, and Lucille Ball). In Pig, Cage plays a recluse who lives in the forests of Oregon and loves his pet pig. He won an Oscar for his performance in Leaving Las Vegas as an alcoholic writer who decides to drink himself to death. He's great in the movie ... I'm just noting that it's a showier role than he has in Pig. And Cage is known for showy roles (he famously ate a cockroach in Vampire's Kiss). For a lot of us, when we think of Nicolas Cage, we think of extreme (over)acting. Cage knows this ... about Pig, he said he "wanted to remind viewers that he can give a realistic performance."

It takes a while to get used to the idea of an underplaying Nicolas Cage, which is a bit distracting, but in fact he is one of the best things about the film. Pig is a low-budget movie, filmed in 20 days by new director Michael Sarnoski. The budget isn't distracting, unless you come in expecting one of Cage's blockbuster films. And Sarnoski benefits from a strong team, including Vanessa Block, who co-wrote and produced, and from cinematographer Patrick Scola, who consistently makes the Oregon forest look so beautiful it's almost unreal. But it's Cage's show, and if Pig isn't quite up to the best of Cage (for me, that's Face/Off and Adaptation.), it's as good as Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans.


tick, tick... boom! (lin-manuel miranda, 2021)

This should be short and not-so-sweet. I can't fairly judge tick, tick...BOOM!, because it is filled with things I don't like, and it isn't good enough to overcome what I bring to the table. Broadway musicals are not my cup of tea. It tells the story of the late Jonathan Larson, who wrote Rent and then died before he could see how successful it was (it won a Pulitzer and a bunch of Tonys). I couldn't name a single song from Rent, or tell you the plot. I need to emphasize, this is on me ... tick, tick...BOOM! is not a bad movie because I know nothing about Rent. I'm just explaining why I disliked the movie, while trying not to dismiss it because it doesn't match my taste preferences. The central character, played by Andrew Garfield, is an obnoxious artist, and I've known a few artists and yeah, they can be obnoxious, but since I didn't care about this art, I didn't care about the artist.

I was reminded of Next Stop, Greenwich Village, another movie about artists in New York getting started on their lives and hopefully their careers. It has a central character, but there are several other important characters, so the burden of being a starving artist doesn't fall solely on one person's shoulders. It's also a very good movie, an autobiographical account of the beginning of Paul Mazursky's career. I highly recommend that movie.