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secrets & lies (mike leigh, 1996)

This is the fourth film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2023-24", "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 9th annual challenge, and my fifth time participating (previous years can be found at "2019-20", "2020-21", "2021-22", and "2022-23"). Week 4 is called "Palme d'Or Week":

One of the three major film festival top prizes (the other two being the Golden Lion at Venice and the Golden Bear at Berlin, both covered in previous LSCs), the Palme d'Or has been awarded at the Cannes Film Festival since 1946. Originally called the Grand Prize of the International Film Festival, it was changed to a palm in 1955 to represent the city's coat of arms. It's one of the most prestigious awards in cinema, with past winners including Martin Scorsese, Federico Fellini, and Akira Kurosawa.

This week's challenge is to watch a Palme d'Or winner.

Secrets & Lies was nominated for 5 Oscars, major ones (Picture, Actress, Supporting Actress, Director, Screenplay), but 1996 was the year of The English Patient, a mediocre, overrated film that somehow won 9 Oscars. At least Cannes got it right. Secrets & Lies is a masterful picture about people, warts and all, stepping gingerly through family life. No one is perfect, but we feel close to all of them, and we want everything to somehow come out all right.

Oddly, the acting is both showy and realistic. Brenda Blethyn is all over the place in a sloppy sort of way ... of course she won awards for her work here. But the acting matches the character, a middle-aged woman with an "illegitimate" daughter who worries that life has passed her by while she keeps secrets (and lies about them). Blethyn also turns inward on a couple of occasions, which contrast with her general blowsiness in powerful ways. It's an actorly performance, but enormously moving.

It's probably a good thing the acting is so good, because the basic story is just that, basic. And there is nothing wrong with that, nothing wrong with a story about families, secrets, and lies. But while the narrative seems a bit formulaic in retrospect, that doesn't matter as you watch the actors at work. Marianne Jean-Baptiste's character is the most internal ... she isn't given as many explosive scenes. But neither is the character entirely reactive to others, and as could be said for so many of the film's characters, the acting elevates the character as "written" (Mike Leigh famously doesn't exactly write his films).

Secrets & Lies is my fifth Mike Leigh movie, and while I've liked them all, I'd put Secrets & Lies at the top. #494 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time.

music friday: sylvia robinson

On this date in 2011, Sylvia Robinson died at the age of 76. Robinson's career spanned several decades, being part of a #1 R&B hit in 1957 and repeating that accomplishment as a solo artist in 1973. In 1979, she co-founded Sugar Hill Records ... she was later dubbed "Hip-Hop's First Godmother".

That first hit in 1957 was "Love Is Strange" by Mickey & Sylvia:

In 1972, Sylvia sent a song she had co-written to Al Green. Al declined to record it (due, some say, to his religious beliefs), Sylvia hit the studios and, 16 years after "Love Is Strange", she had a hit with "Pillow Talk":

In 1974, another song written by Sylvia hit the top of the charts. This time, we're talking disco:

In 1979, Sugar Hill Records released its first record, featuring the best-ever use of Kaopectate in a lyric:

In 2022, Sylvia Robinson was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

geezer cinema: a haunting in venice (kenneth branagh, 2023)

There will always be Agatha Christie adaptations and faux-Christie movies. You know if you like them, and if you do, you know to watch each new permutation. You will never be surprised, but Agatha Christie is like comfort food for fans. If you are a fan, you will enjoy A Haunting in Venice.

One of the ways producers make the latest Christie movie seem different is by filling the cast with a new set of big names. The cast in the first in the Kenneth Branagh series featuring Hercule Poirot, Murder on the Orient Express, included Michelle Pfeiffer, Johnny Depp, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Derek Jacobi, Daisy Ridley, Penélope Cruz, Olivia Colman ... you get the idea.  I didn't recognize as many names in this third installment, but Michelle Yeoh goes a long way for me, and Tina Fey pulls off a rare dramatic role. There are suggestions of supernatural occurrences, which I guess is a little bit of a change for Poirot. But for the most part, A Haunting in Venice is more of the same. As my wife, who chose the movie, said, "It was fine. Nothing too exciting."

It's not a waste of time, and it comes in at a pleasing 104 minutes. But if you ask me, stick with the Knives Out movies.

rock 'n' roll high school (allan arkush, 1979)

I just read a book, I Want You Around: The Ramones and the Making of Rock ‘n’ Roll High School, by Stephen B. Armstrong, which prompted yet another viewing of one of my favorite movies. I'm surprised I never wrote anything about it before, so here goes.

Sometimes I'll say of a movie that I respect it more than I like it, that I congratulate it for carrying out its intentions while admitting the movie isn't for me. Rock 'n' Roll High School is a bit like the opposite of that. Oh, after reading Armstrong's book, I think it's remarkable that the vision of Allan Arkush et al made it as close to the final product as could be. Arkush battled against people who didn't want the film to be made (Roger Corman kept asking Arkush to limit the scenes with The Ramones). The budget was low, the Ramones were amateur actors ... but Rock 'n' Roll High School has become a cult classic over the years, one I can watch again and again.

I love the relationship between the two female leads, #1 Ramones fan Riff Randell (P.J. Soles) and science geek Kate Rambeau (Dey Young). The camaraderie between the two actresses is beautiful. Most of the movie is cartoonish, but Riff and Kate have some authentic moments between them. The cast is full of the kinds of actors you need to establish your cult credentials, and they are all good: Clint Howard, Mary Woronov, Paul Bartel, the immortal Dick Miller, Don Steele, Grady Sutton, and two young women, Chris Summa and Marla Rosenfield, who won the hearts of many young boys but then seemed to disappear.

There are two things that separate Rock 'n' Roll High School from other teen-rebellion comedies. The most obvious is The Ramones. To be honest, the first part of the film drags a bit, with a lot of hit-or-miss schtick. But when The Ramones finally turn up ... well, it's one of my all-time favorite movie scenes:

The band had misgivings about being in the movie, and had turned down other offers to be in films, feeling that rock bands were always shown to be stupid. But here, they are charismatic, helped by the lovely fantasy of the film that The Ramones are like the biggest band in the world. And if they gave Oscars for Best Performance by an Extra, I'd say give one each to those two girls strangling each other in line.

The other thing that makes this movie different is the ending. We learn in Armstrong's book that from the beginning, it was intended that the movie would end with the teens blowing up the school. In the 50s rock movies from which Rock 'n' Roll High School draws, the ending usually comes when the parents realize their kids are OK, the music is OK, everything is OK. That's not how this one ends:

Maybe you hate to hate high school to really appreciate that ending.

So yeah, some of the jokes are sophomoric at best, things don't really pick up until The Ramones show up ... nobody ever said this is a great movie. But I love it, just the same.

the divorcee (robert z. leonard, 1930)

I just finished reading a 1929 novel by Ursula Parrott, Ex-Wife. It was popular on its release, and was published anonymously, although it wasn't long before Parrott's authorship was discovered. Ex-Wife was a fairly "racy" novel, told from the point of view of the woman. It's a good read, as they say, recently reissued. It feels quite modern, with its protagonist fighting for her independence amidst lots of one-night stands.

A year later came a film adaptation, The Divorcee, with Norma Shearer. The pre-Code movie was a bit edgy, but it was a milder version of Parrott's vision, one in which the divorcee ends up returning to her ex-husband. Mick LaSalle, author of Complicated Women: Sex and Power in Pre-Code Hollywood, is a great champion of Shearer, and he called The Divorcee "one of the best American films ever made about the breakup of a marriage." He believes the film was "subversive" and a "pre-Code landmark", claiming that the film goes places the novel did not, for the better. I think this requires a misreading of the novel ... I never thought the title character in the book was "a sex slave for her ex-husband". But LaSalle knows what he talks about when it comes to pre-Code films, and he makes a convincing case for the importance of The Divorcee, which won Shearer her only Oscar.

The problem is that, historical significance or not, The Divorcee isn't a very good movie. LaSalle has worked hard over the years to rescue Shearer's reputation from the likes of David Thomson, who wrote about "the fact—evident to anyone who cares to look at her films—that she was fluttery, chilly, and more nearly vacant than any other goddess." I am no expert on Norma Shearer ... I liked her in a dual role in the silent Lady of the Night, but while I am a fan of The Women, my memory is that Shearer was dull in comparison to her many co-stars. And I found The Divorcee to be less interesting than even Lady of the Night. It's a curio of a movie, worth seeing for that historical significance, but this is a case where you're better off reading the book.

music friday: revisiting willie and lucinda

On this date, 19 years ago in 2004, we saw Willie Nelson and Lucinda Williams. I wrote a lengthy post you can read here. At the time, Lucinda was 51, but didn't really seem it ... she came to people's attention later than with most star musicians (she was 35 when her self-titled album that made us love her came out). Of course, now she's 70 (just like my wife and I) and still at it, releasing an album a few months ago, just after publishing her memoirs. Meanwhile, Willie is 20 years old than all of us, making him 71 when we saw him. He's now 90, and still at it ... the sucker has released two albums this year! Here are a few songs from Willie, Lucinda, and friends.

Here's Lucinda at Farm Aid 2004:

Willie at the same concert:

Here they are together in 2004, singing Lucinda's "Over Time":

Finally, taking us back ... I think to 1962, despite what the title of the video says:

geezer cinema: walkabout (nicolas roeg, 1971)

I don't have anything new to say about Walkabout, which I just watched for the gazillionth time. Walkabout is one of my very favorite movies, and is one of the reasons why, as a film major in the early-70s, I thought Nicolas Roeg was the best director. I recommend it highly to pretty much everyone reading this. Roeg was a cinematographer, twice nominated for a BAFTA for Best British Cinematography, and he did his own camerawork at the beginning of his career as a director, including Walkabout. His fragmented editing style was a trademark, although I've always wondered where it came from. Performance, his first film, which he co-directed with Donald Cammell, is fractured in this way, but Roeg was off making Walkabout while Cammell and Frank Mazzola apparently did the heavy editing. Petulia was another movie with what the IMDB calls "radical editing techniques", but Roeg was only on the camera for that film, and director Richard Lester was apparently the one behind that editing. Wherever Roeg got it from, he made it his own.

smile (parker finn, 2022)

This is the third film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2023-24", "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 9th annual challenge, and my fifth time participating (previous years can be found at "2019-20", "2020-21", "2021-22", and "2022-23"). Week 3 is called "Letterboxd List Battles!: Litterboxd vs. Letterbarkd":

"I have studied many philosophers and many cats. The wisdom of cats is infinitely superior." – Hippolyte Taine

"Dogs have boundless enthusiasm but no sense of shame. I should have a dog as a life coach." – Moby

"Way down deep, we’re all motivated by the same urges. Cats have the courage to live by them." – Jim Davis

"If I could be half the person my dog is, I’d be twice the human I am." – Charles Yu

"Dogs and cats living together! Mass Hysteria!" – Peter Venkman

It's a dispute as old as time: dogs or cats? For this week's challenge, your friendly hosts are cruelly forcing you to choose between man's best friend and man's indifferent roommate. For those who are dog people, fetch a film from Rembrandt Q Pumpernickel's Letterbarkd list. Cat lovers can curl up with a selection from Hollie Horror's Litterboxd list. And if you cannot possibly choose between the two—your animal-loving heart torn asunder at the thought—spread the love like a canine, disregard the rules like a feline, and watch one of each. That's right, Venkman, mass hysteria!

We are a cat family. Have been all of our lives. So you know which list I chose. Of course, Smile isn't a movie about a cat, but a cat plays a significant role. Smile is a very effective horror film, enough so that it makes you wonder why we choose to watch such movies in the first place. It's an uncomfortable watch, but then, that's why many people like horror ... we get giddy with nervous anticipation.

I wouldn't call Smile unique or original. Parker Finn knows how to hit his spots, and the angle (evil represented in smiling faces) is just unusual enough to make a difference. We recognize the tropes as they come along, but they are new to the characters, so their actions are not driven by what we in the audience know ... they don't know they are in a horror film. It's a very tense movie, at times unbearably so, which is all to the good. It's too long by a bit, but the tension peaks as the film ends, so you won't be looking at your watch.

Sosie Bacon is great. It's the first movie I've seen her in, and she carries it like a champ. The events of the film wear on her character, and you see it in her face ... she seems to be getting thinner and more wasted by the minute. I've seen some reviews that credit Finn for offering a study of grief and guilt in the midst of the horror, but I think that's a stretch ... it's a fine horror movie, but a person could write a doctoral dissertation on the ultimate meaning of The Babadook, while Smile just delivers as a strong genre effort. For me, it's not a diss to say it's not quite as good as The Babadook. Not many modern horror films are.

music friday: daylist

Spotify is at it again. They are offering a new, personalized playlist they call a "daylist":

Say hello to daylist, your day in a playlist. This new, one-of-a-kind playlist on Spotify ebbs and flows with unique vibes, bringing together the niche music and microgenres you usually listen to during particular moments in the day or on specific days of the week. It updates frequently between sunup and sundown with a series of highly specific playlists made for every version of you. It’s hyper-personalized, dynamic, and playful as it reflects what you want to be listening to right now.

I checked in on daylist yesterday morning, and got "50s rock n roll rockabilly early morning". Here are a few highlights.

"For Your Love" was the first hit single from The Yardbirds. Eric Clapton, the first of the three famous guitarists from the band, quit sooner after, supposedly because he didn't like their turn towards a more commercial sound. He was replaced by Jeff Beck. On "For Your Love", Clapton appeared only in the middle of the song, which was primarily lead singer Keith Relf, drummer Jim McCarty, and session men. The key sound was provided by Brian Auger, sitting in on harpsichord. On this promotional video, the Yardbirds who didn't appear on the recording (Chris Dreja and Paul Samwell-Smith) turn up singing and playing (Dreja mimes Auger), while Jeff Beck fills in for the departed Clapton. Needless to say, this isn't actually "50s rock n roll rockabilly":

"Time Has Come Today" was a popular psychedelic soul tune from The Chambers Brothers (again, not 50s rockabilly). The Brothers recorded several versions of this ... a single version in 1966 that ran 2:37 and went nowhere, the first real breakout version in 1967 that ran 11:07 and appeared on the band's debut album The Time Has Come, and two shorter "hit" versions released in 1968. It's one of the hit versions that made the daylist:

The Ramones did a good cover in 1983. This was another case where the video features different musicians from the recording. Marky Ramone is listed on the album credits, but he wasn't on "Time Has Come Today" and was kicked out of the band due to his drinking problem. Billy Rogers drums on the record, and Richie Ramone is the drummer in the video. Regardless, it's a good one (and the video is a real favorite of mine):

Finally, one more song that has nothing to do with rockabilly, but Spotify knows I love the song (the problem with Spotify's ability to identify what we want to hear is that more often than not, that means playing us things we already know, despite the claims that this somehow expands our horizons). (This autobiographical song even has a webpage devoted to deciphering all the references.)

geezer cinema/african-american directors series: one false move (carl franklin, 1992)

Carl Franklin is a local guy (born in Richmond, went to Cal) who among other things directed Devil With a Blue Dress, a fine film I watched earlier this year. One False Move came three years before Devil, and while it did little at the box office, it got attention from critics, including Siskel and Ebert, and now seems like the film that really launched Franklin into our consciousness. I saw it when it came out and remembered it being tough and good, but I hadn't thought much about it since then. Criterion recently released a new 4K Blu-ray, which seemed like a good excuse to reacquaint myself. I'm glad I did.

One False Move begins and ends with seriously disturbing violent scenes, but what transpires is a character study with lots of subtle social context. It begins in Los Angeles with some murders driven by drugs and money. A couple of L.A. cops are sent to a small town in Arkansas, where the killers are reportedly headed. The contrast between the big city and the rural South provides some of that context. The three killers are made up of one white man (Billy Bob Thornton, who also co-wrote), a black woman (Cynda Williams) and a black man (Michael Beach). The L.A. cops are one black, one white. And the rural South always has undercurrents of racism. The local police chief (Bill Paxton) casually tosses off the n-word (his wife apologizes for him, saying it's just how he was raised). Paxton initially plays the chief as a bit of a yokel, quite excited about working on a big-city crime.

Things are more complicated than they seem, and the film gets better the deeper we get into the characters, especially Paxton's chief and the three killers. The acting is powerful across the board ... Paxton is always good, of course, Cynda Williams makes you wonder why her career never seemed to take off, and it's fun to see Michael Beach 20+ years before he turned up in The 100. Everything about One False Move is a little better than you might expect, and by the end, you know you've seen something special.