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geezer cinema: personality crisis: one night only (martin scorsese and david tedeschi, 2022)

My wife and I have a bit of history with David Johansen, having seen him a few times during the late-70s/early-80s, when he was fronting his first band as a solo artist. We were fans, and one enjoyable aspect of Personality Crisis is remembering those years and how much he meant to us then. It was like visiting an old friend to see him here, when we all have grown old (at least, older). The film reminds us that it's good to still be around ... Johansen is the only New York Doll who is still with us.

"Personality Crisis" is the perfect title for the movie. Johansen was a New York Doll, then he was a solo artist under his own name, then he was Buster Poindexter, then he headed a band named after the legendary Harry Smith, and then he rejoined the Dolls who were still around (remarkably, it was a successful reunion ... they cut three albums together under the Dolls' name). As Johansen says during one interview, he was a one-hit wonder twice (under two names, of course). One Night Only is a concert film with interviews, the concert being in a small New York cabaret on the occasion of Johansen's 70th birthday (COVID was about to rear its ugly head, unbeknownst to us). The concert has a theme, beyond the star's birthday ... he notes, it's Buster Poindexter (who is him) singing the songs of David Johansen (who is him). As I say, "Personality Crisis" is a fine title.

Of course, that title first appeared as the opening track of the first New York Dolls album, and thus was our introduction to that great band, and by extension, to Johansen.

It was the first of many great opening album tracks/statements from seminal New York bands (think "Blitzkrieg Bop" by Ramones, and Patti Smith's "Gloria" ... Jesus died for somebody' sins, but not hers). The Dolls were compared at times to the Rolling Stones, with Johansen the obvious Mick Jagger guy and Johnny Thunders as Keith Richards, if Keef had died of drugs instead of defying the odds. Thunders was a fascinating guitar playing presence ... he always sounded like he was one step away from spinning off into the gutter with his guitar wailing loudly. Johansen's later bands would feature more traditional guitarists playing cleaner solos, but he was never able to match the sound he got playing with Thunders.

Anyway, I'm not talking much about the movie, which is a bit unfair. Martin Scorsese and David Tedeschi and a lot of great assistants (not the least being Johansen's wife Mara Hennessey) do a good job of integrating interviews and archival footage into the film, while still allowing Johansen to perform his songs complete during the concert itself (thank goodness). Something of a character study emerges, but for all his chameleon performances, Johansen is ultimately a bit too private for Scorsese and company to really get inside the artist. And their love of his work teeters too closely to hagiography. But it's a loving portrait of a man who is perhaps less known today than he deserves.

film fatales #166: the pale horse (leonora lonsdale, 2020)

This is the twenty-ninth 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 29 is called "Cinema of Christie Week":

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen film adapted from a work by Agatha Christie.

I'm not sure how I ended up fulfilling this week's challenge with The Pale Horse, which isn't actually a movie at all, but is rather a two-part BBC mini-series. It must have been on the above-mentioned Agatha Christie list, but it's not there any longer.

Leonora Lonsdale is the director, but the project was led by writer Sarah Phelps. This was her fifth Christie adaptation for the BBC. I can't speak to the comparison between the Christie novel and this series, but it appears Phelps gave us a fairly loose adaptation. The story is tricky in mostly good ways, keeping the audience a half-step of the plot twists. There is a suggestion of the supernatural that both seemed out of place and worked to take us out of the same-old same-old of an ordinary Christie tale.

Rufus Sewell effectively carries the series as an upper-class antique dealer, Mark Easterbrook, who isn't everything he seems to be. Christie/Phelps keeps us wondering if Mark is a good guy or a bad guy by keeping his character both shady and somewhat appealing. On the one hand, I imagine Christie fans will welcome any version of one of the novels, while those who lean towards a more hardboiled approach might be impatient. On the other hand, perhaps the changes Phelps devises would turn off the fans. As I say, I don't know the book so I can't say how much Phelps deviates from the original.

The Pale Horse is a decent time-filler, but I wasn't overwhelmed.

african-american directors series: sankofa (haile gerima, 1993)

Sankofa is a passionate film about slavery in America that, like the novel Kindred, uses time travel to place a woman from modern times back into the horrors of the old South. Sankofa is complex ... it's about more than "slavery is bad". As writer/director Haile Gerima states, "This isn't a film about slavery. It's about the untold history of black people and our resistance." While Gerima doesn't shy away from showing slavery's brutalities, he never resorts to the kind of exploitation porn that gives audiences a chance to enjoy what they simultaneously claim to reject.

He tells the tale of an American fashion model, Mona, shooting in Ghana, who is transported back to the times of plantation life in America. Gerima purposely refrains from an exact explanation for what happens to Mona, but there seems to be a connection between her posing for a white photographer and the disapproval of a black elder who thinks Mona is denying her heritage. (This is shown when Mona is captured by slavers ... she keeps insisting, "I'm American! I'm not African!") The details of the plot don't make a lot of sense ... Mona ends up as a slave named Shola whose doesn't have memories of Mona (unlike the heroine of Kindred, who knows her "modern" self when she is transported back in time). As the film progresses, we see that the black people strive to retain their own culture in the midst of slave life in America.

In Sankofa, contemporary black Americans must connect their present to their past, not in the name of victimhood but in the name of resistance. In our time, white America still gets to choose how our historical narrative is presented. Sankofa draws a different picture of the past, leading the way to a more accurate history and a present with more possibilities.

Gerima does his own editing, and it is effective in making connections when the plot is doing other things. Agustín Cubano does the beautiful cinematography. The acting is heroic and inspiring throughout, especially Oyafunmike Ogunlano as Mona/Shola. Sankofa was recently named by Slate as one of 75 films comprising the New Black Film Canon.

film fatales #165: the smiling madame beudet (germaine dulac, 1923)

This is the twenty-eighth 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 28 is called "French Impressionism Week":

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen film from the French Impressionism movement.

Another example of how the Challenge is such a good idea. I'm not sure I knew there was such a thing as a French Impressionism movement in film, and I had only seen one of the movies on the suggestions list. The Smiling Madame Beudet was an interesting example (and not quite "feature length" at only 42 minutes, but it's on the list). It is perhaps the most famous film from Germaine Dulac, whose career covered feminist writing, film theory, and many films both experimental and commercial. It's the story of an unhappy marriage, or rather, the story of the woman in that unhappy marriage.

The impressionism is smoothly integrated into the film. The wife's thoughts are presented on the screen, rather like the inner dialogue from a novel, and combined with the actual events we see, give us a deep feeling for her dissatisfactions. Dulac doesn't seem to be trying for an obscure touch ... she isn't trying to confuse her audience. But neither does she use the kinds of tricks that scream out "IMPRESSIONISM". She relies on her vision and the intelligence of her audience to make connections.

Germaine Dermoz gives an evocative performance as the title character, who, it should be noted, does not smile.

geezer cinema: black adam (jaume collet-serra, 2022)

Should I be embarrassed if I found Black Adam disappointing? That implies that I was looking forward to it, which I was (and which isn't the same as thinking it would be a good movie). And I was looking forward to it, because while The Rock's movies aren't always good, he is fun to watch.

Well, Black Adam sucked. And one reason is that Dwayne Johnson was wasted. He doesn't smile until the final scene. He buries himself in a one-note performance ... not sure who to blame, not sure who had the idea to take one of our most charismatic actors and turn him into an all-powerful blank. He kicks ass, sure, although I was unimpressed in general with the big action scenes, which were mostly just The Rock throwing people a mile away so they could smash against something and die.

And then there's the problem of the DC Comics universe. I'm not the audience for this stuff ... I barely care about most of the Marvel characters, and I'm even less interested in DC. But if you asked, I could name some DC characters. They are not in this movie. Instead, we get Hawkman and Atom Smasher and Cyclone and Dr. Fate, and I'm sorry, but who are these characters again? Aficionados know them, but if you want the rest of us to lock into your series, you need to toss us a little Batman or Superman once in a while. Maybe this contributed to the fact that Black Adam made almost $400 million at the box office but was considered a flop. I've seen 8 Dwayne Johnson movies, liked about half of them. Black Adam is the worst of the bunch.

the world (jia zhangke, 2004)

The World is the second Jia Zhangke film I have seen, and my reaction is similar to what I thought about Platform. My ignorance about the cultural and political context of these films prevents me from fully understanding what I'm seeing. Both movies look idiosyncratic, with The World even including brief animated sections.

The very existence of the Beijing World Park fascinates me. As is said at the beginning, "See the world without ever leaving Beijing." It's a theme park that features recreations of famous places around the world, so France has the Arc de Triomphe and the Eiffel Tower and America has Manhattan (the towers are still standing in the park), and there are the Great Pyramids and the Leaning Tower of Pisa and Big Ben and much more, all scaled down. Most of the characters in the film work at the park, including many who work in stage productions that fit the replicated area. It's like Las Vegas ... of course, there's shopping and places to eat ... Las Vegas plopped into the middle of a socialist republic.

Platform also focused on a young entertainment group. This allows for plenty of interactions among the young characters, while making subtle statements about the presence of art in China. (This was more obvious in Platform, where the troupe is meant to create productions the government will approve of.) While much of The World is taken up with character development, the presentation is often surreal, as people have conversations while standing in front of recreations of famous landmarks.

As with Platform, I'm sure I am missing a lot, too much to lock completely into what Jia is doing. Zhao Tao is excellent ... she appears in many of Jia's films, and they eventually married. From scene to scene, there is always something interesting going on. I don't want to damn The World with faint praise; I'm just noting the distance between what is on the screen and what I can usefully process. Which is on me, not on the film makers.

interstellar (christopher nolan, 2014)

Christopher Nolan snuck up on me, which seems silly given that his movies have grossed $5 billion worldwide. It's not that I'm unaware of him ... the last time I did a Best Directors list, he came in at #52. Interstellar is the 10th Christopher Nolan movie I've seen, and I liked them all, especially Dunkirk and The Dark Knight. But when I decided to watch Interstellar, I gave little thought to the director or that I liked him. Hopefully, the next time I watch one of his movies, I'll know in advance that he is one of my favorites. (Even though it was just a couple of years ago that I saw one of his movies and made some vague comment about how he slips under my radar ... I really am going to remember him, now.)

Interstellar is extravagant in so many ways. It's a complicated science-fiction story (that doesn't always make sense, but whattya expect). It's a special-effects marvel that relies less on CGI than usual. It's a big, cosmic tale that nonetheless finds time for human touches ... in fact, you could argue the film is more about family and reconciliation than it is about saving the human species. It gets corny more than once, but Nolan is fearless.

The most obvious comparison is with 2001, a film I have gone up and down with for decades. I've come to accept that it's a good movie, but it is not a great movie. Neither is Interstellar, but where Kubrick dehumanizes his story so much that the only lively character is a computer, Nolan shows people crying with heartfelt emotion. Again, it gets soppy at times, but I find this preferable to the sterile vision of Kubrick.

I'm still not sure why I missed Interstellar until now ... it's that odd thing, a box office smash that is also a cult favorite.

opening day 2023

I posted Music Friday a day early because today is the Giants' home opener, and that takes precedence over music.

Beginning in 1980, and going through 2019, I attended 40 consecutive Giants home openers. There were good ones and bad ones ... the Giants won 25 of the 40. There was a one-hitter by Matt Cain, there was the first game at the new park, there was the game where Barry hit #660. Barry had a feel for Opening Day drama ... in 1993, in his first Opening Day at-bat in a Giants jersey, he homered. And in 2002, he hit a walk-off homer to send the fans home happy. There was the ridiculous game against the Padres in 1983, where the Giants fell behind 4-0, and then 13-3, and then 16-6, only to bring the tying run to the plate in the 8th before losing at last. And, of course, there was 2011 and 2013 and 2015, when championship flags were raised in celebration of the previous year's World Series wins.

Then things changed for everyone in 2020. Opening Day didn't happen that year until July, and there were no people in the stands. Fans returned in 2021, but I was still way, plus my streak had already been broken. Then last year, I decided to return, and was greeted with a walk-off victory.

And so today, it'll be Opening Day #42 for me. Things change, even in baseball, and this will be the first time the Giants open against an American League team. I'll try to remember to post a picture or two later today.