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earth (oleksandr dovzhenko, 1930)

This is the twenty-sixth 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 26 is called "Ukrainian Poetic Cinema Week":

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen film from the Ukranian Poetic Cinema movement.

This was one of the hardest challenges to fulfill. There are only 12 films on the above Poetic Cinema list. I'd seen two of them, leaving ten, and none of them were available on any streaming service I have. So I broke the "unseen" rule and re-watched Earth, which I saw once about 50 years ago.

I like to tell an anecdote ... who knows if it was ever true, it tells the truth in its essence, even if the details are a bit off. I was a film major in 1973-4, and I watched a lot of movies. When I got into grad school in English, I spent a lot of time bitching about the literary canon. Suffice to say, I didn't like it. At one point, I took a film course where I was the only English grad student in the class ... all of the other students were undergraduate film majors. And they were smart whippersnappers. But as the semester went on, I realized their knowledge of the history of film was mostly lacking. Meanwhile, those long-ago years as a film major for me meant I got what amounts to a canonical film education (ironic, as I hope you can appreciate). The way I often described those film major years (and this is the part where the truth is in the essence, not the details) is that I watched six weeks of silent Ukranian films. One of them was Earth.

It's an acknowledged classic for a reason (in the most recent Sight and Sound poll, it finished at #312). It's a combination of beautiful cinematography (Danylo Demutskyi was the cinematographer) and innovative editing techniques by director Oleksandr Dovzhenko. Dovzhenko uses a lot of stationary images, of nature, of close-up faces, breaking things up not by moving the camera but by jumping to a new image. The connection between the people and nature is evident. Dovzhenko uses all of this to foreground beauty and symbolism over a more clear didacticism. While Earth is a paean to collectivism, it was criticized by Soviet authorities for, if I understand it correctly, being too masterful as art to make it useful as propaganda.

I'm pretty sure my sense of the politics of Earth is muddled, but it is so beautiful that I just gave myself over to it. Unfortunately, the only print I could find was on YouTube, and it was terrible, a real loss considering the excellence of the film.

geezer cinema: john wick: chapter 4 (chad stahelski, 2023)

It comes full circle. Almost four years ago, my wife and I, both retired, inaugurated our "Geezer Cinema" series, a weekly date at the movies where we take turns picking the week's choice. The first movie in the Geezer Cinema Era was John Wick Chapter 3 - Parabellum. We watched 32 movies at the theater before the pandemic hit, after which we watched from home. That lasted more than a year. Now, we usually watch at home, but we have gone to the theater on occasion when the advance ticket sales suggest it will be largely empty. Because this all started as a movie date, we were seeing then-current films, and we've mostly maintained that, even at home. Of the 182 Geezer Movies, 151 are from the 2019 or later. (The oldest movie was the 1931 version of The Front Page.) According to Letterboxd, our top 5 genres are Drama, Thriller, Action, Crime, and Comedy.

Where was I? Oh yeah, the fourth installment in the John Wick franchise. I am not a big fan of these movies. I can barely tell them apart, as is evidenced by the fact that I have quoted myself three times now about the movies:

John Wick ratchets up the action, to be sure, but not to the extent the Raid movies manage. Also, most of Keanu’s work involves shooting people, and while the body count is impressive, and Keanu’s got the moves, eventually it gets kinda boring watching yet another gun battle/slaughter. Martial arts movies like the Raids offer much more variety, and thus, much less boredom.

There are a LOT of guns in Chapter 4. Chad Stahelski tries to come up with innovative ways to use them, but his solution is always to just shoot more guns. There is none of the elegance of John Woo, and it occurs to me maybe that's a good thing ... maybe guns shouldn't be artistic. The martial arts here are better than I remember from the other movies. Part of this is the presence of the great Donnie Yen. It was nice to see Donnie Yen getting to be Donnie Yen without being wasted like he was in that Star Wars movie. On the other hand, given his stance re: China and Hong Kong, it's hard to like him anymore. And there's martial arts cult fave Scott Adkins, who for some reason wears a fat suit for his scenes. It makes one wish Sammo Hung were still active ... he never needed a fat suit, but the rotund legend is 71 years old now.

Where Chapter 4 shines is in the stunt work, which makes sense considering Stahelski's background as a stuntman. The final hour includes an amazing scene at the Arc de Triomphe where I finally gave in (after four movies) and said OK, this is pretty darn good. What follows is worthy of Buster Keaton, as John Wick climbs more than 200 steps only to be kicked back to the bottom.

So OK ... Chapter 4 is better than the other three. It's way too long, and it's not great, but it's time I tipped my cap at last to Stahelski and Reeves.

[Letterboxd list of Geezer Cinema movies]

film fatales #164: one sings, the other doesn't (agnès varda, 1977)

This is my seventh Agnès Varda movie, and she hasn't failed me yet. She is my favorite woman director, and I'm a bit embarrassed that I never even saw one of her movies until a dozen or so years ago. I've never given a Varda film less than an 8/10 rating, and One Sings, the Other Doesn't continues that streak. I do think, though, that this is my least-favorite so far, which is kind of silly considering I find it better than the vast majority of other movies.

One Sings, the Other Doesn't combines moments of whimsy with pointed political statements, tied to actual events. There is a recreation of a 1972 trial that was key to the process that resulted in legalized abortions in France. One of the primary lawyers in the case, Gisèle Halimi, makes a brief appearance as herself in the movie:

It is easy to imagine that the ambience during the making of One Sings was congenial, and everything we know about the filming reinforces this feeling. It has a collaborative sensibility. While the narrative, which covers roughly 15 years beginning in 1962, is usefully "real", the atmosphere is always positive, looking forward to liberation. These characters have experienced life and death ... there are echoes of historical moments like Paris 1968, or the 1972 abortion trial, and Varda is explicitly presenting a feminist vision that imagines that liberation is coming or is already here. There is a pleasure in the presentation. One Sings, the Other Doesn't suggests the hippie era of the late 60s, with its traveling musicians and its experimental life styles. I wouldn't say it's naïve, but the at times goofy feel of the movie buries the more serious political ideas. Which is what Varda was going for, I'm sure ... she wrote the lyrics to the songs, and while it's been said that they don't translate well into English, nonetheless as they appear in the subtitles, those lyrics are the worst thing about the movie.

One Sings, the Other Doesn't is rooted in feminist politics, but Varda makes sure to have her cake and eat it, too. It's a delight that to an extent buries politics in joy, which is where the delight comes from. You may find yourself thinking after the fact about the political implications of the film, but while you are watching it, you are mostly just enjoying what you see.

fall guy (kinji fukasaku, 1982)

This is the twenty-fifth 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 25 is called "Sonny Chiba Week":

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen film starring Shinichi "Sonny" Chiba.

This was a bit of a cheat. Yes, Sonny Chiba is in this movie, apparently playing himself. But I never spotted him ... he's just one of many actors in a behind-the-scenes look at film making. I'd only seen him in two movies prior to this. Like many Americans, I'd seen him turn up in Kill Bill, but my first encounter with the Chiba legend came via his 1974 martial arts classic The Street Fighter, which we saw at a drive-in. That was the first film to receive an X rating in the U.S. based solely on it violence. The scene I can never forget came when Chiba castrated a bad guy by pulling out his genitals with his bare hands.

Suffice to say, nothing like that happens in Fall Guy. Not that it wasn't possible ... director Kinji Fukasaku is known for lots of violence in his films (among them, the infamous Battle Royale). Fall Guy is an uneven blend of comedy, action, and drama. It's an interesting look at Japanese film making in the 80s, with larger-than-life caricatures. Mitsuru Hirata is good as the title character, and Keiko Matsuzaka is unbelievably beautiful. There's an aggressive sex scene that could be seen as rape, and whatever you call it, it's bad. The whole movie probably needed more Sonny Chiba.

on the road with x, the spotify ai dj

Thought I'd give X, the Spotify AI DJ, a real workout. So I loaded it in and took an 80-minute drive.

First set opened with "Wheels on the Bus" by Jonathan Richman, and included Southside Johnny, Sleater-Kinney, Rilo Kiley, and Angel Olsen. Next he said he would dip into country selections from the Spotify experts, which turned out to be Lainey Wilson, Dalton Dover, Nate Smith, Morgan Wallen, and Megan Moroney. That was followed by oldies: Wilson Pickett, Simon & Garfunkel, the Supremes, Marvin Gaye, and the Temptations. Next up was "jazz" ... I wondered what I'd get. The answer was Billie Holiday, Bobby Darin, Ray Charles, Miles Davis, and Erma Franklin. He closed out with stuff I was listening to in 2020 (or some year, I forget which). Only two songs played before I got home: "East Wind" by Bert Jansch, and "Sex Machine" by Sly and the Family Stone. Quite a ride, from Richman to Sly!

a wednesday (neeraj pandey, 2008)

A Wednesday is a mystery-thriller with a plot that provides some forward propulsion, and lots of showy camerawork and 70s-TV music to keep us awake. There's not much new here ... a mystery person sets up bombs across Mumbai and demands the release of terrorists. This was Neeraj Pandey's first film ... I haven't seen the others, but he has established a solid career. Anupam Kher is good as the police commissioner, as is Naseeruddin Shah as the mystery man. The truth is, I'm striving to think of memorable moments from A Wednesday, and I only saw it a couple of hours ago.

the miracle worker (arthur penn, 1962)

It's been forever since I saw this, probably 60 years or so. It's the kind of movie where everyone praises it, and then promptly forgets about it. Arthur Penn's direction is near perfection, but when you hear his name, you think Bonnie and Clyde. Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke won Oscars, but when you think of them, you think of The Graduate and The Patty Duke Show. If someone mentions The Miracle Worker, people think of Helen Keller, or if they saw the movie they think of how great the two actresses were, but that's about it.

I'm not here to say that The Miracle Worker is an all-time great movie. But it's close. Anne Bancroft is incredible as Annie Sullivan, and Patty Duke matches her as Keller. Penn's direction manages to make us forget the stage origins of the story, and he (and the actresses) are familiar with those origins, since they worked on the Broadway production before the film was made.

Everyone who sees The Miracle Worker in any of its forms remembers the dinner scene. It invites greatness, although it's easy to imagine it going wrong. David Thomson wrote that Penn "sees that the moving camera is essential to animate the fights between Annie and Helen—their great scene over folding a napkin may be the most violent scene in Penn’s work." And that's saying something, considering Penn directed Bonnie and Clyde and Little Big Man.

The scene is choreographed down to the simplest movements (in fact, it's all in William Gibson's original play), but as presented here, it's frighteningly real, even as we appreciate the choreography, which is as magnificent as the best wire-fu from Hong Kong. Bancroft and Duke did it together on stage hundreds of times under Penn's direction ... they knew the parts backwards and forwards, there was a danger that after all of those prior performances, the filmed version would be rote. But it's not ... it's one of the great scenes in movie history:

Thomson is right to single out the moving camera ... it's what raises the scene above a simple reenactment of a stage play.

Not everything works. The flashbacks designed to show us Sullivan's past seem like another movie. And while Sullivan and Keller are the core of the movie, there are other characters and other actors, and they are functional at best. But I'm nitpicking. The Miracle Worker deserves to be seen and remembered.

double indemnity (billy wilder, 1944)

I never think of myself as a big Billy Wilder fan, despite the fact that he was #36 on the most recent Best Directors List I made. I've seen 8 of his films, and liked all but one (One, Two, Three), but I know many think good movies like Some Like It Hot and The Apartment are great, which separates me from Wilder's biggest fans. I think he's made one classic, Double Indemnity, with Sunset Boulevard a close second.

I'm not going to try to identify who did what on this movie. Wilder co-wrote the screenplay with Raymond Chandler from a novel by James M. Cain ... I congratulate them all, but I don't know where the best dialogue comes from. For some reason, I am especially taken by this brief exchange:

Walter: The perfume on your hair. What's the name of it?
Phyllis: I don't know. I bought it in Ensenada.

It was nominated for 7 Oscars, but didn't win any (Going My Way was the big winner that year). The three primary actors are iconic: Barbara Stanwyck, Fred MacMurray, and Edward G. Robinson. Everything about the movie is iconic, enough so that if you were only going to show one film to explain what film noir is, Double Indemnity would be a fine choice. Everything is airtight, rather like MacMurray's Walter Neff thinks his murder scheme is airtight, except Walter is wrong. I think it's the best movie Wilder ever made, I think it's the best movie any of the three stars were associated with, and that's some elevated company.