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geezer cinema: the great escape (john sturges, 1963)

My wife watched this together some years ago ... it's a particular favorite of hers. This time, we enjoyed a 4K Blu-ray ... it looked great. I haven't changed my mind about the movie, so here's a mostly cut-and-paste from what I wrote in 2016:

A perfect title for a movie that excels as escapist entertainment without offering anything more.

I feel like The Great Escape is remembered fondly by those who saw it on its release. It did well at the box office, and we watched it again mostly because both my wife and I recalled liking it long ago. It is very straightforward, constructed in an easy-to-understand manner, with an effective slow build until the actual escape (the film is too long at almost three hours, but once it gets there, it delivers). Whatever liberties are taken with the actual events, the downbeat ending is very much in tune with those events, and perhaps give The Great Escape slightly more resonance than other blockbusters. But it is a stretch to make too much of that resonance.

Bruce Eder thinks highly of The Great Escape:

John Sturges' The Great Escape could easily be the most under-appreciated movie of its genre and decade ... Beneath the fact-based heroics, the humor of many of the portrayals and Elmer Bernstein's rich, rousing score lay the elements of a classic tragedy. While ordinary viewers responded to the driving dramatic forces among the characters ... critics and scholars viewed the movie as an artless, empty blockbuster. They were looking for self-conscious subtlety and obvious artistic touches in a story that required only a straightforward, unpretentious telling. The Great Escape expresses its depth and drama through action rather than ponderous dialogue, and in that sense, was probably too true to its subject for its own good, at least in terms of achieving critical respect.

Eder’s description of the film is accurate, but he concocts a straw-man critic that I don’t think exists. The Great Escape is far from artless, but who exactly needed “self-conscious subtlety and obvious artistic touches”? Movies that emphasize action are not rejected by critics, who, as far as I know, hate “ponderous dialogue” as much as the next person. The Great Escape is what it wants and needs to be, and audiences respond to that. There is no need to “elevate” it beyond its clear virtues.

The “based on a true story” angle is about as close to real as it ever is. There was an escape. Americans were not an important part of that escape, but for box-office purposes, Steve McQueen and James Garner were signed up and given big parts. The most iconic scene in the film, McQueen’s chase on a motorcycle, never happened. McQueen asked for a motorcycle scene because he liked to ride. That no American tried to escape on a motorcycle is irrelevant ... it’s the best scene in the movie, the one people remember fifty years later.

The Great Escape is a fine adventure that holds your attention for nearly three hours. That is good enough. #866 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time.

songs from the second floor (roy andersson, 2000)

Long ago, I invented a genre of movies I call "Not for Steven," aka the works of Terrence Malick. These are movies where the director clearly accomplishes what they've set out to do, but I don't care for the results. Songs from the Second Floor is Not for Steven, but I admit, I haven't got the slightest idea what Roy Andersson was up to, so I can't say whether or not he accomplished his goals. His film connects with a lot of people, and critics love it ... it's #40 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century (#456 all-time).

There's no real plot. The film is a series of vignettes, and for the most part, I think the audience is supposed to make connections between the scenes. Andersson isn't laying it out on a platter for us. Each vignette takes place in front of a stationary camera (there is one scene where the camera moves a bit). People turn up multiple times ... there may be no plot, but there is a continuity among the characters. I just didn't care. For what it's worth, Andersson is inspired by the Peruvian poet César Vallejo, whose poems pop up as dialogue. Some have said Songs from the Second Floor should be seen as a poem, itself.

cold water (olivier assayas, 1994)

Cold Water is my fifth Olivier Assayas film, and I still haven't seen a bad one. Set in 1972, the movie offers what feels like an accurate portrayal of teenagers at a certain point in time and place, and in fact Assayas was the same age in 1972 as the characters in this film. Assayas gets honest work from the largely non-professional cast ... they never seem like amateurs. He also seamlessly integrates Virginie Ledoyen as Christine into the film, Ledoyen being a pro who had been a child performer. She's very natural in Cold Water, and you don't get the feeling she's a cut above her castmates in skill.

Assayas also makes masterful use of music in Cold Water. There is barely any music in the first half of the film, which focuses on a couple of teenagers and their perilous relationships with parents. This, too, is honest ... the parents aren't just authoritarian morons, the kids are far from perfect. Then, at about the halfway point, a party ensues, created seemingly out of nowhere by a community of teens who meet at an abandoned ruin. They listen to music (this is crucial), they smoke weed, they start a bonfire, they talk and talk and talk to each other, and throughout, Assayas and cinematographer Denis Lenoir snake the handheld camera through the party. We only catch fragments of the conversation, except for key scenes with Christine and her nominal boyfriend Gilles, played by Cyprien Fouquet, who as far as I can tell has never acted since. Christine and Gilles are the teens we get closest to, and the acting styles of Ledoyen and Fouquet blend beautifully. The music is appropriately of its time, and it's all in English, which is likely what French teenagers listened to in 1972. Assayas says he's drawing on his own memories. He also says he essentially used the music in the long party scene to drive the narrative.

The music had another, unforeseen, impact on Cold Water. It features Leonard Cohen, Janis Joplin, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Nico, Roxy Music, Bob Dylan, Alice Cooper, Uriah Heep, and Donovan, and it's a bit murky how the rights to all that music were obtained. But once the film was ready to be released in the US, whatever rights they might have had no longer held. Which is why this 1994 film didn't get a real release in the States until Criterion put out their edition in 2018.

It takes its time getting to that party scene, but it's worth it.

infinity pool (brandon cronenberg, 2023)

This is the eighth 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 8 is called "Body Horror Week":

Prepare to be disgusted. Continuing this month of horror, let’s explore one of the subgenres that can really disturb and elicit a visceral reaction. Body horror features thrills based on the distortion, violation, and/or mutilation of the human body and has the power to make your skin crawl. From the godfather of Body Horror, David Cronenberg, to recent visionaries like his son, Brandon Cronenberg, and Julia Ducournau, there’s no shortage of filmmakers who use this subgenre to explore what it means to be human, to have corporal forms we can’t always control, and to have an identity that is based, at least partially, on how we and others perceive our physical selves.

This week buckle up for a wild ride and maybe don’t plan on eating dinner with your movie as you watch a body horror. Here’s a list from Maxvayne to help you out. The provocative imagery of Body Horror can help us think deeper about ourselves, but since this subgenre can also involve very real physiological reactions we respect anyone who cannot stomach these kinds of movies and offer up Body Swap movies as a lighter alternative with this list.

The list we picked from included lots of movies I really don't care for: Tetsuo: The Iron Man and Tusk come to mind. I do like some of the films, with the 1956 Invasion of the Body Snatchers at the top, but I realize I don't actually think of that movie as "body horror". The closest blend of "I liked it a lot" and "I'd call it body horror" is Ginger Snaps. My favorite movie by "the godfather of Body Horror, David Cronenberg", was A History of Violence, which wasn't body horror and didn't make the list. It's rare that I enjoy body horror movies, which is a good reason to take part in challenges like this, which expand your horizons.

So I feel like a good boy because I made it through Infinity Pool. But I didn't like it much. I'm not sure I was supposed to "like" it, anyway. Admire it, think about it, sure, but like? There's some intriguing acting, especially from Mia Goth, and the gradual revelation of the plot is well-handled. But the movie never grabbed me, and with an over-the-top film like this, being grabbed seems like the point. So chalk this up to my dislike of the genre.

music friday: david johansen

On this date in 1981, I attended a Pat Benatar concert. I went because I wanted to see the opening act, David Johansen. Not sure why I bothered ... we'd seen Johansen several times by that point when he was the headliner, I wasn't a Pat Benatar fan, it was raining out, I went alone because no one else was interested. I left after Johansen's set, so I've still never seen Pat Benatar live. Oh, and Johansen was booed throughout his set. But hey, it gives me an excuse to feature him on this week's Music Friday.

There have been many versions of David Johansen, a point made clear in the recent Scorsese documentary about Johansen. First (and foremost), there was the New York Dolls:

There was solo David:

Next was Buster Poindexter:

David Johansen and the Harry Smiths:

And let's not forget his acting career:

geezer cinema: killers of the flower moon (martin scorsese, 2023)

I have seen 26 movies directed by Martin Scorsese, which I believe is more than I've seen of any other director. (Admittedly, there are a couple I barely remember, and I'm counting The Big Shave, which is only 6 minutes long). Scorsese is in his 80s, and it's quite a feat that he's still making such strong, demanding movies. There's always a chance that he'll get extra praise just because he's old, which in this case would be unfair ... Killers of the Flower Moon is not flawless, but it's very good. I'm someone who thinks Scorsese did his best work in the 1970s (Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, The Last Waltz), but other than Casino and Gangs of New York, which really didn't work for me, I'm glad he's been making movies since the 70s.

So, Killers of the Flower Moon. The theater we saw it in stuck a brief "hello" by Scorsese himself at the beginning, thanking us for coming to see his movie at the theater. Of course, Apple was involved in the production, and they'll be streaming the movie sooner rather than later, I'd guess. In any event, it certainly does benefit from the big screen. And Scorsese is after bigness in more ways than just "production values" ... the damn movie runs 3 hours and 26 minutes, and Scorsese is proud of that fact. (It is the longest movie in the history of Geezer Cinema.) I was prepared to be upset by this, but the truth is, I don't know what should be cut, and the movie is never boring. I'm just glad I had my RunPee app to tell me an advantageous time to take a leak (I may not be as old as Scorsese, but I'm old enough to know I'm not watching a 3 1/2 hour movie without peeing at least once). Killers of the Flower Moon is actually 3 minutes shorter than The Irishman, the last feature Scorsese made. (My faves from the 70s all managed to get in under 2 hours.)

Apparently, the film was originally going to focus on the budding "Bureau of Investigation", with Leonardo DiCaprio as the agent who comes to town and solves the mystery of the murders of Osage people. DiCaprio seems to have had something to do with a shift in focus from the agent to the character he eventually played, Ernest Burkhart. It's a movie "about" the Osage, but it's really about Ernest, his uncle, and his Osage wife Mollie. This is always evident ... Scorsese worked with the Osage Nation, made a movie that is sympathetic to the plight of the Osage, but the Osage in Killers of the Flower Moon are there to create a background for the story of Ernest, his uncle, and the white man's attempt to steal the Osage riches. The characters played by DiCaprio and Robert De Niro are the most complex in the film. Lily Gladstone, who plays Ernest's wife, is rightly receiving praise for her performance in the film ... she gives the movie its soul. But hers is a secondary character.

What's left is a 3 1/2 hour movie about a messed-up guy who does terrible things but occasionally demonstrates that he's not all bad. Scorsese gives his film an epic feel, and it looks like an epic, but it falls short, as an epic. It's a fine film, better than some real epics, but it's a bit sneaky in how it presents itself.

downfall (oliver hirschbiegel, 2004)

It's always an odd feeling to come to a classic film long after everyone else has already seen it. It's especially weird in this case, because Downfall has become famous in the nearly 20 years since its release as the source for endless parodies of one particular scene. If you haven't seen Downfall, you might think you know nothing about it, but chances are you've seen at least one of these:

There's nothing wrong with these parodies, and sure, we know when we watch them that they aren't meant to represent the actual movie. But while I didn't expect to see 2 1/2 hours of Hitler rants, I realized as I watched that the endless parodies did give me a warped sense of what went on in Downfall. I assumed the entire movie would take place in Hitler's bunker, but actually much of the film takes place outside the bunker, as Berlin falls to the Russians. The isolation of Hitler in his bunker is contrasted with the realities of what the German people are experiencing at that moment.

Some have criticized Downfall for showing "the human side" of Hitler and his Nazis, and the presentation of scenes in the bunker do engender a certain uncomfortable connection with the bunker's inhabitants. As Charlie Bertsch wrote, "Even though Hitler is clearly mad and his associates mostly venal and inept, their dire predicament and the time viewers spend with them in the claustrophobically close quarters of the bunker elicit a kind of structural identification, a sympathy in spite of itself à la the famous 'Stockholm Syndrome', that threatens to conceal the magnitude of their crimes." This makes the scenes outside the bunker crucial: once we lose the claustrophobic connection, once we see the horrors in Berlin, we awake from our Stockholm Syndrome.

Perhaps lost in all of this is that Downfall is a great movie. Bruno Ganz's portrayal of Hitler is uncanny. Ulrich Matthes' Goebbels looks like a zombie, which is somehow scarily appropriate. And Alexandra Maria Lara perfectly captures the complications of her character, Hitler's secretary Traudl Junge, who survived and later in life wrote a memoir that is one of the sources for the film.

Here is the actual scene that inspired a thousand parodies:

Personal addendum: on our honeymoon 50 years ago, my wife and I went to a movie. That became a tradition ... every year on our anniversary, we see a movie together. That honeymoon movie was Hitler: The Last Ten Days, with Alec Guinness. Here is the "Steiner" scene from that movie ... it's startling how much it resembles Downfall, which came out more than 30 years later:

dr. jekyll & sister hyde (roy ward baker, 1971)

This is the seventh 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 7 is called "Hammer Horror Week":

London-based Hammer Film Productions is most famously known for the horror movies they produced in the 50s, 60s, and 70s. They often made low-budget movies featuring classic horror monsters like Frankenstein’s monster, Dracula, and the Mummy, employed a usual repertoire of actors in many of their films (including David Prowse who would later don the Darth Vader costume), crafted Gothic sets, and shot their movies in actual mansions rather than on studio sets. They capitalized on including more explicit violence and sexual content than was usual at the time, but when American films like Rosemary’s Baby and Bonnie and Clyde came out and offered the same thrills with much higher production values, Hammer Pictures couldn’t keep up and eventually ceased producing movies altogether.

This week dive into some classic Hammer Horror from this list. If you can’t unearth one of the classic gems of Hammer Horror you may look to the films made after Hammer Film Productions was resurrected in 2007 after decades of silence.

Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde is a fairly typical late Hammer picture. They make the most of their limited sets, none of the actors are bad, and there's some cleavage. The angle on the classic story this time is that when Jekyll drinks his potion, he doesn't turn into Mr. Hyde, he turns into Mrs. Hyde. The transgender undertones are more obvious nowadays, I imagine. It's the first time I've seen Ralph Bates, who played Jekyll ... he's functional. Former Bond Girl Martine Beswick is better as Mrs. Hyde. The movie works Jack the Ripper and Burke and Hare into the story without too much trouble. Roy Ward Baker has made better films ... he directed the excellent 1958 Titanic movie A Night to Remember, and my favorite Hammer film, Quatermass and the Pit. (He also directed the disappointing Vampire Lovers.)

geezer cinema/film fatales #183: the royal hotel (kitty green, 2023)

Kitty Green began as a documentary film maker, before releasing her first fiction film, The Assistant, in 2019. The Royal Hotel is also fiction, but its source material is a documentary, Hotel Coolgardie. The Royal Hotel does not have the feel of the usual "based on a true story" movie, though. The film takes place in an isolated part of Australia, and when you're isolated in Australia, you are really isolated. It starts as a story of two young American women (they pose as Canadians because everyone likes Canadians) traveling together for no apparent reason except to expand their horizons and get as far away as possible from what their lives were to that point. Gradually, and I mean very gradually, we realize that the women, who are outnumbered in the small town by men by what appears to be about 100:1, have been placed in a tenuous situation. At this point, the film becomes a thriller ... what will happen to the women?

Some have said The Royal Hotel evolves into a horror movie, but I didn't see that. What does happen is that Green adopts the tropes of horror films, with the townsmen as the monsters on the other side of the door. And the men are indeed monsters ... this is not a subtle film. There are no good men (my wife thought there were no good people of any gender, but I think that's unfair to the women). Despite its short running length (91 minutes), The Royal House moves slowly, and it feels longer.

Ultimately, there's not a lot to the movie. It doesn't take long to establish the basic story: men are bad, women are in danger. But it doesn't push this at first ... as I said, it takes its time going from buddy movie to thriller to horror. There are a few tense moments, but not enough for the movie to really stand out. Julia Garner and Jessica Henwick are fine in the leads, and its fun to figure out that the big drunk bar owner is Hugo Weaving. There's nothing wrong with The Royal Hotel, and it gets things over with quickly. That's about as far as I'd go with the compliments.