film fatales #189: proof (jocelyn moorhouse, 1991)

This is the fourteenth 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 14 is called "Living in Obscurity Week":

Top 10 (or 50, or 100, or 250), Best of, and All-Time Greatest lists are all well and good, but sometimes the discerning movie-watcher desires the sweet thrill of discovery, of stumbling upon an obscure gem, of uncovering a magnificent concoction few others have. There is nothing wrong with those lauded collections of films—they are well-known and revered for good reason. But think about this: by some estimates, there are nearly 5 million films out there in the world! It's like a bucket of LEGO containing pieces of every size; all the little bricks sink to the bottom while the bigger ones rest on top. Movies, it seems, are no different.

This week, let's plunge our hands deep into the movie bucket and shun the measly 1% of films (if we're being generous) that get the most attention. However, 4.95 million films are a bit much to sift through. Luckily, Letterboxd makes our task easy: just pick a title from The Most Obscure Movie Recommendations List Ever as compiled by independent online film journal Bright Wall/Dark Room. Voila! Happy discovering!

Proof was the first feature for writer/director Jocelyn Moorhouse, and it was successful on the festival circuit, opening doors for Moorhouse's subsequent career. I've seen her later movie The Dressmaker, which was also highly regarded, although I felt it didn't add up to much. You could say Proof doesn't fit clearly into any genre, or that it crosses several genres, but in any case, it's just different enough to be surprising throughout. It's a study of a blind man, it's a buddy movie, it's a romantic triangle, and no one can every quite trust anyone else. Trust is at the center of the film ... the blind man can't trust what others say because he can't see evidence of what they are talking about. He takes photographs of everything, and then asks people to describe what they see. He compares their descriptions to what people said when the events took place, and can then know who is honest ... the photographs are his proof.

There's some nice acting going on. Hugo Weaving doesn't overplay his character's blindness, and is all the more believable because of that. Russell Crowe is impossibly young (he was 27), with a pleasing charisma. Geneviève Picot rounds out the triangle, and her character is written almost like a femme fatale from a noir picture. Picot makes it work.

Proof won't knock you off your feet, but it's a solid film and a strong start for Moorhouse.

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.

geezer cinema: elvis (baz luhrmann, 2022)

It's an understatement to note that I expected to hate this movie. I love Elvis, but I generally dislike biopics, and I found the previews suspicious ... they made it look like the movie was going to be about Col. Parker. Well, it's still a biopic, but Baz Luhrmann does what he can to distract us from the shortcomings of the genre. And the Colonel is the villain of the piece, as he should be, and he's not as important as the previews suggest. Oh, he's the narrator of the film, and he probably thinks he is the center of the story, but Luhrmann ensures that we don't go along with Parker's delusion.

But most importantly, Austin Butler is a revelation as Elvis. The only thing I'd seen him in was Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood, but then, everyone was in that movie, and I can't say I remember Butler, who played Tex. Biopics are made for Oscar nominees ... last year alone, six of the ten nominees for Best Actor/Actress played real people. You come close to imitating the actual person, and you get attention for "acting". It's not impossible to actually be good in such circumstances, but the temptation to fake it with makeup and an accent must be enormous. (Just ask Tom Hanks as Tom Parker.) Butler gets the imitation part right ... he has clearly studied the King in depth, he has the moves, he has the smile, he has the voice ... he is even believable as a singer. What raises Butler's performance above the average biopic Oscar bait is that his Elvis is a real person. Butler gives us an actual character of some depth. He doesn't just rely on the makeup and the costumes. It's quite impressive.

You could say I know the story of Elvis pretty well (I even wrote my honors thesis for my bachelor's degree on Elvis). Yes, Luhrmann farts around with chronology, he doesn't always get things right in the sense of being accurate. But he comes close enough. The importance of the 1968 TV special is properly emphasized. Luhrmann pussyfoots around issues of race ... he does a decent job of showing Elvis' musical and cultural roots, but he could have done more to examine the negative aspects of cultural appropriation. But he mostly shits on Col. Tom, and he gives Butler room to give us a memorable Elvis. I'm glad I saw it.

This was the 150th Geezer Cinema Movie, starting three years ago, where my wife and I have a weekly date at the movies, taking turns picking what we watch. Here is a Letterboxd list of our Geezer Cinema movies.

geezer cinema/film fatales #128: the power of the dog (jane campion, 2021)

This makes six Jane Campion movies I have seen ... second among women directors only to Kathryn Bigelow in terms of how many of their films I have seen (I've also seen six from Agnès Varda, who is probably my favorite woman director). I've never seen a Varda movie I didn't like a lot. I've been a fan of Bigelow for more than 30 years; I look forward to her movies and try to see them when they are released, but there has been an occasional dud (The Weight of Water). Campion is a different case. I haven't considered any I've seen to be classics (my favorite is probably An Angel at My Table), and I reacted so negatively to In the Cut that I need to see it again to figure out if I was just in a bad mood. She gets extra credit for the first season of Top of the Lake. Basically, Jane Campion has been involved with many films in my viewing experience, and while I don't always remember to include her, she certainly belongs in any list of my important directors.

A winner of multiple awards, The Power of the Dog has so much going for it. It looks beautiful (Ari Wegner is the cinematographer, with New Zealand standing in admirably for Montana). The music from Jonny Greenwood gets into your head from the start (the closed captioning makes frequent mention of "uneasy music playing"). At the least, Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, and Kodi Smit-McPhee are likely Oscar nominees, and Jesse Plemons is right there with them (plus it's always nice to see Keith Carradine). The film examines toxic masculinity so deeply that a Google search of "power of the dog toxic masculinity" gets six million hits.

And yet ... blame it on me, but despite all of the above, I wasn't quite engaged with the movie as it was playing. I threatened to doze off more than once, and it was only thanks to later reviewing of a couple of scenes that I really understood what had happened. Blame it on me ... but there was something about The Power of the Dog that lulled me. I felt almost encouraged to let my attention wander. The result was a movie that elicited a big "Huh?" from me as it ended. I worked at getting the information that would help my appreciation, and I now disavow my "Huh". But exactly why did that happen in the first place?

I'll avoid spoilers, but I want to point out the first dialogue we hear, from an unknown narrator. "When my father passed, I wanted nothing more than my mother's happiness. For what kind of man would I be if I did not help my mother? If I did not save her?" We soon ascertain who the speaker is, and these lines are crucial to the film's ending. Beyond that, I'll say no more for now, but I suspect this is a movie that will reward a second viewing down the road.

[Letterboxd list of Jane Campion movies I have seen]

[Letterboxd list of Geezer Cinema movies]

[Letterboxd list of Film Fatales movies]

sweet country (warwick thornton, 2017)

This is the thirteenth film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2021-22", "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 7th annual challenge, and my third time participating (my first year can be found at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20", and last year's at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2020-21"). Week 13 is called "Meat Pie Western Week":

You've heard of the spaghetti Western, now get ready for its Australian cousin: the meat pie Western. Essentially just Western films made in Australia, typically set within the Australian Outback, the meat pie Western offers up some similar themes of isolation and colonialism as your standard American made fare. Dig in!

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen Meat Pie Western film.

Meat Pie Westerns. Can't say I'd heard of the genre before. Turns out, including Sweet Country, I've seen seven Meat Pie Westerns. That's misleading ... four of them are Mad Max movies, which I don't think of as Westerns, Meat Pie or anything else. (The Nightingale was a popular choice for this challenge, and it's a very good movie.) Sweet Country feels like a Western, with its vast landscapes and people riding horses. The presence of Aboriginal characters offers a different subtext than we usually get in American Westerns, adding race and class to the mix. I imagine it plays much differently in Australia.

I recognized two actors. Sam Neill is like the quintessential Australian, except he was born in Northern Ireland and moved to New Zealand as a kid. Bryan Brown is that Australian. The two are apparently good friends ... both are in their 70s now, and still looking good. I forget what movie it was, but there was a film with Brown where he seemed to have his shirt off all of the time, which led to my wife and I calling him Bryan "Beefcake" Brown ever since. He was 70 when he made Sweet Country, and sure enough, he's still taking his shirt off ... he's still got the beef. Hamilton Morris is the lead, an Aboriginal farm worker who kills a white man in self-defense. He lends gravitas to a movie that is pretty full of that kind of seriousness, and it's amazing that this was his only acting job beyond a couple of episodes of a TV series. Natassia Gorey Furber, who plays the farm worker's wife, was also making her debut, and she is heartbreaking.

Director Warwick Thornton is new to me. He has worked as a cinematographer (he fills that function here, as well), and the movie is gorgeous. Sweet Country is solid and easy to recommend, although Jennifer Kent's The Nightingale remains my favorite Meat Pie (I'm not counting Mad Max movies).

geezer cinema: the dry (robert connolly, 2020)

I hadn't heard of this one, which was a box office hit in Australia, proving once again that it's a good idea to let someone else pick the movie on occasion. The Dry is a who-done-it that tells two connected stories with local color and a quiet intelligence. It doesn't beat you over the head, but it's far from boring. Eric Bana stars, and he carries the film by sliding into the overall feel, mostly quiet but with an uncertain past and the ability to take action. The rest of the cast was unknown to me, other than the immortal Bruce Spence, who almost 40 years earlier played the Gyro Captain in Mad Max 2. It's fun ... his voice is the same, even if he looks 40 years older.

The cinematography from Director of Photography Stefan Duscio makes full use of the dryness of the environment (they are in the middle of a drought, hence the title). I wish I could say more about The Dry. It's a perfectly good film for an afternoon, and I have no complaints. But I feel like I'll have forgotten it in a month. Nice use of "Under the Milky Way" by The Church, sung by BeBe Bettencourt, who also has a part in the flashback segments.

film fatales #109: sweetie (jane campion, 1989)

This is the twenty-fourth film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2020-21", "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 6th annual challenge, and my second time participating (last year can be found at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20"). Week 24 is called "Southern Exposure: Jane Campion Week".

Though not as obscure as our Northern Exposure director, Jane Campion has made a name for herself, due in large part to her breakout hit, The Piano. The thing is though, as far as I can tell, a lot of people haven't viewed her work outside of that film. So if you've yet to see it, you're in for a treat, and if you have seen it, you get to see how a filmmaker develops. A win-win.

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen film directed by Jane Campion.

Sweetie was Jane Campion's debut as a feature director, after a few years making shorts. She's had a fine career, winning an Oscar for her screenplay for The Piano, which she also directed, helping Holly Hunter and Anna Paquin win acting Oscars. She created the television series Top of the Lake with Elisabeth Moss, and had her hand in a variety of movies over the years (I'm partial to An Angel at My Table). Sweetie was her idea ... besides directing, she also co-wrote the screenplay. And it's an odd one.

The family at the center of Sweetie is, let's say, dysfunctional. At first, the film seems to center on Kay, a young woman, shy and superstitious. She seems socially awkward at her work, and she begins a relationship with a new boyfriend, Louis, because of the tea readings of a fortune teller. There is something a tiny bit off in the way Campion and cinematographer Sally Bongers present Kay's life, but it's nothing you can put your finger on, and I settled in to what I assumed would be a quiet look at an unassuming individual. Kay's parents are just eccentric enough to suggest how Kay became Kay.

And then Kay's sister Dawn, called "Sweetie", turns up, and we see that this family is more than a tiny bit off. Sweetie is ... how to say it ... kind of crazy. As the film progresses, we learn that she has essentially demanded attention from her family since childhood, and she goes over the edge more than once in her interactions with others. The tone of the film wavers, at times a comedy, at times a family drama, often exhibiting a mean streak towards Sweetie. To the extent the movie sympathizes with anyone, it's more Sweetie's family than Sweetie herself, although the way her parents indulged her since she was a kid is a type of "explanation" for how she turned out.

Sweetie is different. Karen Colston and Geneviève Lemon are intriguing as Kay and Sweetie. I couldn't always tell what was intended by Campion and her co-screenwriter Gerard Lee, and the movie is not close to a complete success. But it's an interesting look at Campion when she was just starting.

geezer cinema: i am mother (grant sputore, 2019)

First-time director Grant Sputore had a low budget and a lot of ideas. He managed to work most of those ideas into I Am Mother, aided in part by a remarkable robot that was created in a way simultaneously old-school and new. Weta Workshop out of New Zealand, alongside project supervisor Luke Hawker, created a life-size humanoid robot, mostly bypassing CGI. Hawker then put the robot suit on, rather like Haruo Nakajima in all those Godzilla movies. This old way of making a monster feels once again new, and the robot moves and "acts" seamlessly. Add in Rose Byrne as the robot's voice (the robot is called "Mother"), and you have a quite believable creature right in the middle of the film.

As for all those ideas, Sputore throws up one homage after another ... Blade Runner, Ex Machina, Battlestar Galactica, and 2001 come to mind. Sputore borrows from lots of movies, but puts it together in a unique enough way to make it interesting in its own right. You might find this or that plot turn to be reminiscent of another film, but that thought only occurs to you after the fact. There are plot twists a-plenty, but you don't see them coming until they've reminded you of that other movie, and by then, Sputore has moved on again.

In all of this, I Am Mother is helped by some fine acting. New-to-me Danish actor Clara Rugaard is the core of the entire film as "Daughter", a human grown by "Mother" from an embryo. She convinces us that her emotional attachment to her robot mom is real, and then handles whatever Sputore gives her the rest of the way. Hilary Swank turns up with her usual solid performance ... I am regularly amazed that Hilary Swank has two Oscars, even though her wins were deserved ... I just don't picture Hilary Swank when I imagine a dual-Oscar winner.

I Am Mother is far from perfect. As Matt Zoller Seitz pointed out, "The most frustrating thing about 'I Am Mother' is the way it favors the unveiling of plot twists over nearly everything else, including characterization, theme, and the related pleasures of world-building." Still, those plot twists, along with the clever rearranging of homages, and the creation known as Mother, make I Am Mother much better than I expected.

(Letterboxd list of Geezer Cinema movies.)

geezer cinema/film fatales #94: babyteeth (shannon murphy, 2019)

I'm a sucker for tales of teenage girls, so this combination of coming-of-age story and possibly fatal disease worked for me, even though the latter isn't my favorite genre.

The team behind Babyteeth have worked under the radar. This is director Shannon Murphy's first feature, and I didn't know her, but she's been directing series television since 2013, so she's no amateur. This was also the first writing credit for Rita Kalnejais, although again, she's no amateur ... Babyteeth is based on her stage play. Not sure it means anything, but as of this writing, Kalnejais doesn't even have a Wikipedia page, which can also be said for Toby Wallace, who plays "the boyfriend", and Eugene Gilfedder, playing a music teacher. And once more, these aren't amateurs ... Gilfedder has acting credits, mostly in TV, going back to 1993, and young Wallace also has plenty of TV credits. So, unknown to me, sure, but they weren't hired to give the "authentic" feel an amateur offers.

The female leads, though, are people I know, although in both cases, they snuck up on me. Eliza Scanlen was Milla, the teenager with the terminal illness; she looked familiar, and at first, I thought it was because she kind of resembles Alison Pill. But actually, she's been in a couple of recent things, the HBO mini-series Sharp Objects, and Greta Gerwig's Little Women (she was Beth). As for Essie Davis, who played Milla's mom, all I knew about her was that she was in The Babadook that I love so much, and I commented early on that I didn't remember her in that movie, that in fact, all I could remember from The Babadook was the mother and the son. Imagine my embarrassment when I finally realized Davis was the mom in Babadook! (Hey, her hair was a different color.)

Just about everything works in Babyteeth. Scanlen impressively goes through a lot of different emotions. Toby Wallace is believable as the "dangerous" boyfriend (someone mentioned that they were reminded of Valley Girl). Davis has a stereotypical role (middle-aged mom with a drug problem) ... actually, much of what happens in Babyteeth reminds us of standard weepies, but it feels fresh just the same ... anyway, like Wallace, Davis is believable as a character you don't usually see outside of movies (and she gets the movie's best line: "This is the worst possible parenting I can imagine"). Toss in Ben Mendelsohn as the dad, and you've got a very capable cast. Murphy is unafraid to step slightly outside the lines in her direction, and whatever Kalnejais did in the transfer from stage to screen is seamless ... not once did I think, "this is based on a play". As many critics have noted, Babyteeth is familiar enough to trick us into thinking we know what is coming, and quirky enough to frustrate our expectations just the same.

And it's funnier than the above might suggest.

(Letterboxd list of our Geezer Cinema movies.)

(Letterboxd list of Film Fatales movies.)

geezer cinema/film fatales #86: relic (natalie erika james, 2020)

Natalie Erika James has done a little of everything in the film business, and now with Relic, she has directed a feature, as well. She is new enough that she doesn't have a Wikipedia page as of this writing, and her IMDB bio is equally blank. Relic should change all of that.

Relic is a horror movie, I suppose ... depending on your mood, you might be frightened at times. (At one point, I told my wife that the movie was scary because nothing was happening. She said no, it's simply that nothing is happening. Yes, replied, that's what makes it scary ... you don't know what is coming! I liked it a lot more than she did.) It is a slow movie, but it's also brief (89 minutes) and it picks up in the last half hour, where it most resembles a typical horror film.

There are three generations of women in the family that appears in the film: Edna, her daughter Kay, and Kay's grown-up daughter Sam. While the film doesn't tell us their ages, the ages of the actors suffices, I think: Robyn Nevin (77), Emily Mortimer (48), and Bella Heathcote (33). Edna lives along in a big house in the woods. There are mysteries about that house, but James doesn't get specific, and for most of the film, Kay and Sam just assume Edna is suffering from dementia (which may be true, but which doesn't necessarily explain events).

We in the audience are always disoriented. James and cinematographer Charlie Sarroff accomplish this mostly by using odd angles, with mirrors turning up in unusual places. We don't always realize we are looking at a reflection. And more than once, there is a shift in perspective that throws us off. A person opens a door, and we never know if the next shot will be from their point of view, or from the view on the other side of the door. It's very subtle, but it works, perhaps more so because we don't really recognize it as it's happening.

James draws a parallel between our unease and that of a person with dementia, never sure what is real or what actually happened. But, as with everything in Relic, James isn't about to state anything clearly and obviously. Thus, when the movie was over, my wife still thought nothing happened, and I couldn't really argue with her. It's not that kind of horror movie. But it insinuates itself into the viewer. James is a talent to watch.

(Here is a letterboxd list of Film Fatales movies.)

This marks the 50th movie Robin and I have watched during our We're Retired Geezers, Let's Go to the Movies Once a Week program. We saw 32 in a theater before the quarantine began, 18 at home. Here is a letterboxd list of Geezer Cinema movies.