Spotify's new AI-driven DJ mode appeared on my phone. It began with the "DJ" introducing himself and explaining what would be happening. The following songs then played:
Bee Gees: "Holiday"
Kelly Hunt: "Across the Great Divide"
Sleater-Kinney: "Get Up"
Molly Burch: "Control"
Lovin' Spoonful: "Bald Headed Lena"
After which, the DJ came back and told me what kind of stuff would be next. The DJ mode is supposed to be tailored to my tastes as Spotify knows them, and it's true that I had previously liked 4 of the first 5 songs (I'd never heard of Molly Burch).
It's not random ... Spotify has been tracking my listening for years. So I have confidence the music selections will be good. Still too early to decide if the DJ will be annoying.
(First oddity: DJ said it was time to look back to 2018, but then played songs I had played frequently in 2018, rather than playing music from 2018.)
Start with Margot Robbie. She has two Oscar nominations, and even when she's in a poor movie, people like her. She looks like a movie star. She is well cast in Babylon.
Consider Brad Pitt. He has two Oscars, one for acting. He looks like a movie star. He is well cast in Babylon as a fading star.
Both Robbie and Pitt let you know that they are acting in Babylon. We don't hold it against them, because we like seeing them on the screen. But if we are to believe Babylon, movie making is quite different from what appears on the screen. Pitt's Jack Conrad can show up drunk, do a perfect scene, and go back to being drunk. Robbie's Nellie LaRoy can turn on the waterworks at will, but stardom makes her a drug-addled mess. Movie making is filled with self-absorbed, at times tyrannical people. And everyone likes to party ... it's called Babylon for a reason.
Writer/director Damien Chazelle is happy to let us know that he is directing. Babylon is nothing if not showy. Chazelle's excesses seem a good match for what ends up on the screen. He never settles for good enough when more than enough is possible.
I'm trying to figure out why Babylon seems so unlikable to a lot of people. Some critics loved it, but the consensus was less than good (Metacritic score of 60). It was a box-office flop, not even making its budget ($80 million, with a box office of $62 million). None of this reflects what I saw, a movie that is like a speed freak's version of Singin' in the Rain, minus the songs. It's all too much, of course, and that includes the length (more than 3 hours). But some of the set pieces are terrific, much of the acting and/or screen presence is engaging, and the costume and production design deserve their Oscar nominations. Babylon is not a great movie, but I don't get why people crapped on it.
Here's a clip. It is indeed 8 minutes from Babylon, but despite what it says, it is not the opening.
This is the twenty-first 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 21 is called "Advanced Anime Week":
This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen film from Owen Shapiro's Advanced Anime list.
This was a challenge, all right. First off, Shapiro's list disappeared, making it hard to complete the actual challenge. The list had been replicated by others, though, so it looked good, until I found that almost every film on the list was unavailable to me. I decided to pick something that 1) I could access and 2) was at least nominally anime, if not "advanced". And thus, 5 Centimeters per Second.
The film is quite subtle. It follows the story of young Takaki Tōno, and contains three episodes from different points in Takaki's life. In the first, he meets a girl, Akari, in elementary school, and they have a deep friendship that fades somewhat when Akari moves away. In the second, Takaki is in high school, and a classmate, Kanae, is in love with him. But she can never express her true feelings to Takaki. Finally, in the third, Takaki is grown and a programmer, still thinking of Akari. They seem to meet on a road, but a passing train comes between them and they don't end up contacting each other.
There is a bittersweet feel to it all. Relationships are intense, but they don't last, and lives move on. The movie is gorgeous, even when the tale is melancholic. But, to be honest, I found it all a bit boring, even with its short 62-minute running time. It's a typical movie for the challenge, something I wouldn't have seen on my own, but ultimately far enough outside of my taste preferences that I appreciated it without loving it.
Five more songs I've listened to in the last couple of days that I like.
Well, it had to happen. The whole point of Geezer Cinema is that my wife and I, in our retirement, make a weekly date to watch a movie, taking turns choosing. We've been doing this for more than 3 1/2 years now, as we approach our 70th birthdays. So this week, my wife took a little time about her choice, and finally came up with The Little Things, from 2021. It's just the kind of movie she picks: mystery about a serial killer, starring Denzel Washington. In fact, we have proof it's the kind of movie she picks, because she also picked it back in 2021. This week marks the 177th Geezer Movie, and I'm surprised it's taken us this long to forget we'd seen a previous choice.
So, my wife went back to the drawing board, and chose The Girl on the Train, with Emily Blunt and an interesting supporting cast. Blunt plays Rachel, divorced fairly recently and not doing to well adapting. She lives with her sister, she drinks too much, and on her commute each day she looks out the train window at the home she used to live in, where her ex-husband now resides with a new wife and a kid. The screenplay by Erin Cressida Wilson (Secretary) lets us share Rachel's confusion, and the plot twists are surprising enough, to me at least. Rachel is a mess, and as she looks out her train window she imagines the lives of the women she sees are much happier and calmer than her own. The more she learns about those women, though, the more she realizes she isn't the only troubled woman in the world.
Emily Blunt is powerful throughout ... she plays a great drunk, her eyes often glazed over but with a hidden intelligence that lets you know she is eventually going to get to the bottom of things. How much you enjoy the movie depends on how much you buy into the plot. I was engrossed, never bored, but never really engaged, and the time shifts seemed designed more to keep us in the dark than to help tell the story. But your mileage may vary.
All That Breathes is a documentary that can be described simply, but that would miss the point. It is about two brothers in New Delhi who rescue birds, black kites to be exact. On that level, it's an interesting and informative work. But it's about a lot more than just rescuing birds.
There is unrest, always in the distance, yet never seeming to be far away. The air is so polluted that birds fall from the sky. The ground doesn't seem much better ... early on, we see rats overrunning a area filled with, well, a little of everything. The trick Shaunak Sen uses is that none of this is foregrounded. Throughout the film, Sen focuses on the brothers, working out of their basement, searching for funding for a hospital, imagining a future outside of New Delhi. You are always aware of the unrest and the pollution and the ways everything is connected, because Sen never lets us forget, even while what we are seeing is primarily the brothers.
The film features some lovely cinematography, and we get to know the brothers, Nadeem Shehzad and Mohammad Saud, as the movie progresses. There is always something interesting going on, although much of it is depressing. The brothers know their work is a drop in the bucket, but they go on, for what else is there to do except try to better the circumstances of their environment.
Five songs I've listened to in the last couple of days that I like.
[This is the twelfth in a 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. 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 Shape of Water resembles The Creature from the Black Lagoon, only with Cocteau's Jean Marais as The Beast. Del Toro finds inspiration in low-budget genre fare, but his visual sense moves far beyond what those pictures offer. While del Toro's vision drives the movie, ultimately it is the acting that raises The Shape of Water to another level. Both Sally Hawkins and Doug Jones do remarkable things while missing a crucial element in acting ... Hawkins' character is mute, while Jones is Amphibian Man. Hawkins only "speaks" using sign language, Jones barely speaks at all, but the bond they form as they communicate is what makes The Shape of Water a fitting choice for a "Modern Love Week". Hawkins' face is a wonder.
All of which is true, and having watched it again, I can only reiterate that I really do have a bias against giving modern films their ultimate due. The Shape of Water is a clear 10/10, it was a 10/10 when I first watched it, and I've really got to give up on this notion that a new movie can't be given classic status.
This time, I was primed to catch the Fred-and-Ginger reference near the end of the movie. These two clips demonstrate the connection:
I have now seen all but one of del Toro's features, and he one of my favorite directors. The Shape of Water ranks with Pan's Labyrinth as his masterpieces.
This is the twentieth 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 20 is called "Pre-50s Musicals Week":
This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen musical film made before 1950. A list to guide you.
If you judge a musical solely on its music scenes, A Song Is Born is OK. One critic said the movie is perfect for the DVD age, where you can just jump forward to the music scenes. Which you'd want to do, because the rest of the movie is a drag. It's a remake of Balls of Fire, also directed by Howard Hawks, that starred Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck. Hawks famously hated A Song Is Born. He said he only took the job for the money:
Danny Kaye had separated from his wife, and he was a basket case, stopping work to see a psychiatrist [every] day. He was about as funny as a crutch. I never thought anything in that picture was funny. It was an altogether horrible experience... We not only had to take Virginia Mayo, but [Goldwyn] had her run Ball of Fire about twenty times and rehearse with somebody else to play Stanwyck's scenes. She's not Stanwyck, I'll tell you that.
Kaye is remarkably subdued by his own standards, and is far too dull. Still, Louis Armstrong, Tommy Dorsey, Lionel Hampton, Louis Bellson, and many others make appearances, which helps a lot. Perhaps best is Benny Goodman. While the other musicians play themselves, Goodman plays "Professor Magenbruch", an academic who, it is noted, has never heard of Benny Goodman. So yeah, use that fast-forward button if you like, but don't expect a good movie.
This is my 10th Guillermo del Toro movie, and there hasn't been a stinker among them (well, I didn't get Hellboy when I saw it, but by the time of Hellboy II, I was locked into del Toro ... I imagine if I saw the first one again, I'd like it more now). He has at least one all-time classic, Pan's Labyrinth, and one close-to-classic that I'm about to reevaluate (The Shape of Water). He's made top-notch noir (Nightmare Alley) and top-notch Kaiju (Pacific Rim). His Gothic romance was a good one (Crimson Peak). He's even good at television ... The Strain lasted for four seasons. So there shouldn't be any surprise that when he turned to stop-motion animation, the result would be a wonder to behold.
My memories of the Disney Pinocchio are vague enough that comparisons aren't much use. I've never read the book, so I'll just take people's word for it that del Toro and co-writer Patrick McHale came closer to book than to Disney. Having said that, there are obvious changes from the book as well, most notably that this time, the action takes place in Italy under Mussolini (the book was written in the 19th century). Del Toro often manages to work Fascism into his stories, and this time, he lets Pinocchio have an enjoyable moment as Mussolini watches:
The animation is uncanny in that you forget it's stop-motion almost immediately. It has a look of its own ... this is not a Pixar movie, or something from the classic Disney period. The uncanny feeling comes from the painstaking detail the animators put into the project; it appears seamless, although we know that can't be the case.
Del Toro and McHale offer some interesting takes. Pinocchio doesn't want to be a real boy this time. He just wants to be accepted for who he is. Geppetto, the wood carver who creates Pinocchio, wants him to replace his dead son, but Pinocchio is incorrigible, and eventually Geppetto learns to love the wooden puppet on his own merits.
There are some excellent choices for the voice actors ... I often wish people who work as voice actors would take precedence over star casting, but the stars certainly work here. There are Oscar winners (Cate Blanchett, Christoph Waltz, Tilda Swinton), Emmy winners (Ewan McGregor, John Turturro), young Gregory Mann as Pinocchio, and Ron Perlman, who has now been in eight del Toro movies ... he was even in del Toro's first feature, the Spanish-language Cronos, even though Perlman doesn't speak Spanish. Finally, David Bradley is perfect as Geppetto, and he, too, is a semi-regular for del Toro (he played a main character in The Strain).
With all of this, you might wonder if del Toro has come up with another classic. For me, Pinocchio is a near-miss. Good as it is, it suffers from the bane of modern animated features: it's a musical. The songs aren't as obnoxious as usual, here, but I wouldn't have missed them if they were gone.