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sign of the gladiator (guido brignone, 1959)

This is the eighteenth film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2022-23", "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 8th annual challenge, and my fourth time participating (my first year can be found at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20", the second year at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2020-21", and last year at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2021-22"). Week 18 is called "Sword and Sandals Week":

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen Peplum film.

As I have said many times, when it comes to bad movies, the most interesting things are usually the ones that aren't actually on the screen. Sign of the Gladiator (I've seen multiple titles for this one ... Nel segno di Roma is the original title, and in the U.S. it's also known as Sheba and the Gladiator ... did I mention there are no gladiators in this movie?) has Sergio Leone's name among many listed as writers. Director Guido Brignone got sick during the making of the film, and Michelangelo Antonioni did some uncredited work while Brignone was unable to be on set. I stumbled onto the film by accident ... the challenge was to watch a Peplum film, but the one I originally chose turned out to only be available in a Spanish dub, which seemed wrong considering the genre. So, Sign of the Gladiator.

"Peplum" is another way of saying "sword-and-sandal", and you know the genre even if you've never seen one. Hercules is the main character in many, and in others, Hercules has a different name because the film makers didn't own the rights to "Hercules". In truth, Sign of the Gladiator is a bit of an anomaly ... the only big battle scene comes at the end, and most of the movie consists of backroom skullduggery between Rome and Palmrya. And there's romance, which leads to the female lead, who played Zenobia, queen of Palmyra. She was Anita Ekberg, and I guess the studio decided if Anita Ekberg was in their movie, there better be some romance. Ekberg is an interesting person on her own, famous for splashing in a fountain in La Dolce Vita. As much as anything, she is the reason to watch the movie. But don't take that as a recommendation. If you are dying to see Ekberg, watch La Dolce Vita or Boccaccio '70.

Here's a brief clip from the English dub:

all quiet on the western front (edward berger, 2022)

The latest version of All Quiet on the Western Front reminded me of a couple of other WWI films. As I wrote at the time about 1917, "I'm not sure it's possible to make a pro-war movie about WWI." And there is the greatest of WWI movies, Kubrick's Paths of Glory, where the real targets of Kubrick’s attention are the highest-ranking officers of the French army. You get some of this in All Quiet in the late scenes with the general demanding that his troops spend the last 15 minutes before the armistice fighting for German "honor".

Tim Goodman pointed out that "You just can’t escape the odd, unsettling, eeriness of watching a movie set between 1914-1918 and see modern day similarities to Ukraine, 2023." This makes war seem inevitable and inescapable, and it's hard to imagine anyone watching All Quiet on the Western Front and feeling even a smidgen of hope. (Paths of Glory is similar, except there is a tacked-on final scene that tries to make the audience leave at least a little bit better.)

One of the best things about All Quiet is the insistence that there is no heroism possible under these circumstances. Paul Bäumer (Felix Kammerer) is the closest thing to a main character, and he acts nobly for the most part. But World War I was a stupid war (even given the general stupidity of all wars), and there is nothing any of these soldiers can do that might be called heroic. They are like Sisyphus, endlessly pushing a rock up a hill, watching it roll back down the hill, and then returning to push it up the hill again. There was no point in what the soldiers were asked to do, and while Edward Berger doesn't go as far as Kubrick in damning the generals, they are the ones who send the soldiers to their meaningless deaths.

The film is nominated for 9 Oscars, including Best Picture. One nomination it definitely deserves is for Best Makeup ... the varieties of mud-caked faces are amazing. Felix Kammerer is great ... it's hard to believe this is his first film. I'm not saying any of the five Actor nominees are unworthy, but Kammerer is hard to forget after this movie. Best Picture? It's not an insult to say it's not as good as some of the other nominees ... I'd say a nomination is an appropriate reward for the quality of the film.

african-american directors series: devil in a blue dress (carl franklin, 1995)

This is the seventeenth film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2022-23", "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 8th annual challenge, and my fourth time participating (my first year can be found at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20", the second year at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2020-21", and last year at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2021-22"). Week 17 is called "LA Films Week":

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen LA film.

Carl Franklin has had an interesting career. He grew up in Richmond, California, went to Cal, and as an actor appeared as a regular in many TV series. Then in 1986, he enrolled at the AFI Conservatory, got a Master's Degree, and went to work directing films for Roger Corman. Then, in 1992, came a terrific movie, One False Move, followed by Devil in a Blue Dress. The sky would seem to have been the limit. Franklin has always worked, but he only directed four features after Devil, moving instead to television, where he has directed episodes of some of the top series of the era.

Devil in a Blue Dress was based on the first book in the Easy Rawlins series by Walter Mosley. Mosley has become a highly-acclaimed author, and his Easy Rawlins books now number more than a dozen. Lead actor Denzel Washington already had an Oscar (and another nomination). It's clear from the final scene of the film that the door was left open for a series of Easy Rawlins movies. But Devil in a Blue Dress is still the only time Rawlins has appeared on the screen. The film was a critical success, but it flopped at the box office. Denzel has remained one of our best actors, but the only film series he makes is the mediocre Equalizer movies.

Devil in a Blue Dress has a lot going for it besides Denzel. Don Cheadle gets his first big role and steals all of his scenes. Franklin and crew do a great job of creating Los Angeles in 1948. Cinematographer Tak Fujimoto's work is impeccable. And Franklin (and Mosely) shows how racial relations are ever-present, as Rawlins steps around the charged atmosphere of a time and place where white people have the power. Devil in a Blue Dress works on all of these levels. It's a shame it didn't resonate with a big enough audience at the time.

music friday: ashley mcbryde

Asked on a music group on Facebook to post something about a new-to-me album I'd been listening to, I chose Ashley McBryde Presents: Lindeville, which came out a few months ago. McBryde had self-released some music, going back to 2006, but she didn't make her major-label debut until 2018, and Lindeville is only her third such album (she turns 40 this year).  It's aptly named ... McBryde is joined by several guests, such that "Presents" is appropriate. Here are a couple of songs from the album.

Caylee Hammack and Pillbox Patti join in for "Brenda Put Your Bra On":

"Gospel Night at the Strip Club" with Benjy Davis:

And, from 2019, here's Miranda Lambert and an all-star group of singers including McBryde with a remake of Elvin Bishop's "Fooled Around and Fell in Love":

geezer cinema: plane (jean-françois richet, 2023)

Truth in advertising: this movie features a plane.

It's my first film from Jean-François Richet, about whom I know nothing. (His bio on the IMDB is only two sentences long, and tells us his birthdate and lists a few of his movies.) I've seen half-a-dozen Gerard Butler movies, and Plane is a bit better than the norm. It's always nice to see Mike Colter and Paul Ben-Victor, and Daniella Pineda does Oakland proud. A lot of times, action movies like this are by-the-numbers dull, but Richet manages to keep things going for a nice economical 107 minutes. There's nothing new here, but it's all as efficient as its title. The evil rebel Filipinos are unfortunately crazed stereotypes in the manner of the Somali pirates in Captain Phillips, which I guess is supposed to be countered with the diversity of the good guys in the movie (a Scotsman, an African-American, a co-pilot from Hong Kong, a Mexican-American woman from Oakland, etc.). It's a nothing movie that delivers what it promises and leaves out the rest, which is rarer than it should be. And it's my first film from 2023.

platform (jia shangke, 2000)

This is my first film from director Jia Shangke, another entry in the It's About Time department. Platform was Jia's second feature, made when he was 30 ... he is considered a leading light in the Chinese "Sixth Generation" school of films.

While there was much to appreciate in Platform, I felt like I was only scratching the surface. Clearly, Jia is commenting both on the 1980s, when the film mostly takes place, and 2000, when the film was released, but I don't have enough context to pick up on subtleties. What is left is a good, if long, look at 20-somethings as they interact with each other and experience the changes in Chinese society. The focus is on a theater troupe whose repertoire seems to focus on things The Party would approve of. As time progresses, the troupe becomes more pop, but again, my lack of context means I noticed this without being able to know the implications of much of the situation.

The main characters are played by Wang Hongwei and Zhao Tao, both of whom have worked frequently with Jia. (Zhao is married to Jia.) Jia often uses stationary camerawork, but the compositions are effective, and there is enough movement to prevent a static look.

I liked Platform; I just wanted to get it enough to love it. #376 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time, #36 on the 21st-century list.

Here is the opening scene:

the killing of satan (efren c. piñon, 1983)

This is the sixteenth film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2022-23", "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 8th annual challenge, and my fourth time participating (my first year can be found at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20", the second year at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2020-21", and last year at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2021-22"). Week 16 is called "Southeastern Asia Week":

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen film from a Southeastern Asian country. This list should help.

There are some good movies on that list. I can't use things I've already seen, but The Raid is terrific, and I've liked every film I've seen by Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul, who god bless him has said it's OK to call him "Joe". Back in September when the Challenge came out, I picked a Thai film that was on the Criterion Channel for this week. Four months later, I go to watch the movie and find it's no longer available. So I had to quickly hunt down something else that I could stream. Which is how I found myself watching the Filipino horror fantasy, The Killing of Satan.

Oh my, it was bad. Scott Drebit described it perfectly when he called it, "epic in scope and minuscule in execution". Epic? It's about the battle of good and evil, with the actual Satan competing for the bad side. Minuscule? At times, I was reminded of Robot Monster, where the entire movie seemed to take place in the same section of Bronson Canyon. The characters in The Killing of Satan would go into caves, spend time underground (apparently next door to Hell), escape, and somehow, they always ended up in the same place.

The movie is full of action. But it's bad action. The fight scenes are a blend of boxing-style fisticuffs and cheap FX. This is not a martial arts movie, it's a movie where people with supernatural powers try to beat the crap out of each other while dodging some of those cheap special effects. There is no imagination in these scenes. It almost made me pine for the oddball hopping vampires of HK films. There's a plot, but everything is so ragged it's as if Jean-Luc Godard popped by long enough to tell everyone to ignore continuity.

As is often the case with movies this bad, it's the accompanying trivia that interests us, and here we are blessed with the star of the film, Ramon Revilla. In 1992, almost a decade after he made The Killing of Satan, Revilla became a Senator in the Philippines, where he served two terms. Wikipedia tells us that one of his bills in the Senate states "The illegitimate children may use the surname of their father if their affiliation has been expressly recognized by the father through the record of birth appearing in the civil register, or when an admission in a public document or private handwritten instrument is made by the father." In a perhaps unrelated note, depending on the source, Revilla fathered somewhere between 38 and 72 children.

And I watched all of this because the Criterion Channel took one of their movies off of streaming. What's worse, the only place I could find that was streaming this junk was Tubi, which meant there were two minutes of ads every 15 or so minutes, the print was shitty, the aspect ratio was wrong (at least, that's my assumption), and the dubbing wasn't any good.

Spoiler alert: this is the scene that fulfills the title. See if you can guess which one is Satan:

music friday: david crosby

My favorite Byrds song was "Eight Miles High", and Crosby was still with the band at the time ... he received a songwriter's credit, although he may not have added much. There was a version the band preferred that wasn't used by the record label, but it became available long after the fact:

Here's the official version, with drums by Sina:

"Helplessly Hoping" by Crosby, Stills & Nash (written by Stills) was one of the only songs I ever sang on stage. Three of us played an acoustic set as an opening act for a metal band ... don't ask. "Helplessly Hoping" was one of our songs, and while my job mostly was to play bass while my friends sang real purty, "Helplessly Hoping" needed a third for harmonies. So there I was. Problem is, when I sing that song to myself, I end up doing the lead, and I kept coming in on the wrong note when we were together. So, even though we didn't have a bass in our version, as we began, I found my first harmony note on my bass and played it very quietly over and over until the singing began, at which point I sang the note from the bass and was able to continue with that harmony part of the rest of the song. (I didn't play that bass note after that.)

I saw CSN&Y once in 1974, and saw CS&N once in 1984 after a Giants game ... they played at second base.

"Love Work Out" was far and away my favorite song by Crosby & Nash. As I said on Facebook, "They are thankful for Danny Kortchmar and David Lindley on this track, as am I."

Finally, here is Grace Slick and Jefferson Airplane doing right by one of Crosby's songs, "Triad":

geezer cinema/film fatales #160: women talking (sarah polley, 2022)

Writer/director Sarah Polley has only made four features, starting with her debut in 2006, Away from Her, but it's only in the last week or so that I have caught up with her, first by seeing Take This Waltz, and now catching her new film, Women Talking, based on a novel by Miriam Toews. Her screenplay for Away from Her was nominated for a screenplay Oscar ... she wasn't yet 30 at the time. She has written all of her films (and now she has a book as well, Run Towards the Danger, which I am reading as I type this). Before beginning her directing career, she had been acting on screen since she was six, getting a feature role in The Adventures of Baron Munchausen when she was nine, starring in two Canadian TV series, Ramona and Avonlea, for eight years, and continuing as an actor until 2010. Women Talking is her first film in ten years, and it only solidifies my opinion that she is one of our best writer/directors.

I'm not sure what identifies a "Sarah Polley Movie". Her films are intelligent, the acting is usually excellent, they are filmed (and set in) Canada. Women are at the center of her movies. The films look great (Luc Montpellier has been the cinematographer for three of the films, including Women Talking). Their movies are very different, but the director Polley brings to mind is Ryan Coogler, who also has made four films, beginning with the fine Fruitvale Station, and who has yet to disappoint (although his career has gone towards the blockbuster, having made the two Black Panther movies).

I loved Stories We Tell so much that I thought of Polley as a great director, even if I'd only seen two of her movies. So it's easy to say that I was excited about her first film in ten years. And what a film it is. We saw Women Talking with a friend who was worried about the film ... he had read and loved the book, and wondered how it could be captured on film. Afterwards, he gave a thumbs up. Polley draws together her strong cast (unfair to single out only a few, but Rooney Mara, Jessie Buckley and particularly Claire Foy are especially excellent), giving them dialogue that is quotable, if sometimes speechifying, and making each character distinct (Toews gets a lot of credit for this, of course). She turns a story that could be exploitive (the women in an isolated religious community have been systematically raped and beaten for decades) and makes the focus the women themselves ... the assaults are never far from our attention, but Polley doesn't show them endlessly. Women Talking is only partly about abuse and abusers. Polley's primary focus is on the group of women as they decide how they will continue to live their lives.

Most of the film is set in a single hayloft in a barn, and at times there is a stagy feel, as if Women Talking were based on a play. It's not intrusive, though. What does draw attention is the washed-out colors of the film, about which Polley has said,

I think once they start having this conversation in the hayloft they're already consigning the world they live into the past. It’s already done because they're having a conversation about it and how to change it. So for me, it was important that it feels like a faded postcard. That there be a sense of nostalgia and of a colorlessness. A sense that whatever it is, this world that they're talking about doesn't exist anymore because the very fact of them having the conversation is shifting that reality.

The emotionalism of the final shot of the film is reminiscent of Spielberg, showing us one more time that Sarah Polley's career as a writer/director already exists in the rare company of our finest artists.