what i watched

A cold has kept me out of commission for most of the week, and turned my brain into mush. Here are some brief notes about two movies I watched.

Film Fatales #140: The Second Mother (Anna Muylaert, 2015). An effective combination of comedy and drama, with a performance from Regina Casé that is perfection, perhaps especially when her character is irritating. A film about class that sneaks up on its subject.

Geezer Cinema: The Adam Project (Shawn Levy, 2022). I have a fixation on Ryan Reynolds that has nothing to do with his movies. In fact, this is the first time I saw a movie where he was the star. Nonetheless, I'm aware that he has fans, that he is appealing, and he tends to play the same character a lot. I can't say this is a typical Ryan Reynolds movie, given I haven't seen most of them, but I get the feeling that is exactly what The Adam Project is. Reynolds slides right into his character, Walker Scobell is a solid teen actor, and a few of my favorites also turn up (including Mark Ruffalo and Catherine Keener). It doesn't amount to much, and the sappy ending is definitely not up my alley. Also, it's a time travel movie, and as is usually the case with such films, if you think about it at all the entire thing falls apart. (If a future You kills a present You, and future You dies because you were never born, how did future You exist to come back into the past to kill themselves?)


film fatales #132: elena (petra costa, 2012)

This is the twenty-third 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 23 is called "Essentially Brazilian Week":

Was already thinking of making this list a weekly theme for this Season's Challenge, and this comment from a Brazilian Letterboxd user sealed the deal:

"Here on Brazil, our cinema is underappreciated, people just watch bad comedy movies and have a group who says we have a bad cinema, they don't know the classics and they think we just have five good movies: Dog's Will, Central Station, the two Elite Squad movies and City of God. See lists like this makes me happy,"

-O Legado Cinematográfico

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen Essential Brazilian film from Lost in Film's's list.

Another example of why I like doing this challenge: I knew nothing about Elena, or Petra Costa for that matter. Of the 107 films on the Essential Brazilian list, I'd only seen four. So welcome to a new experience.

Turns out, Elena is a documentary, which I didn't know ... OK, I'll quit, you get the point, I am clueless. The title character, Elena, is the older sister of the director, Petra Costa. Only one other person appears in the cast list, and she is Elena and Petra's mom. Petra Costa uses a combination of sources to construct her movie. There are home movies (Elena got her first movie camera when she was 13), an old diary of Elena's, and interviews Petra conducted with people in Elena's life. Elena, an aspiring actress, had moved to New York when Petra was 7 years old. After a return to Brazil, Elena is accepted into a university in New York, and she returns there, with her mother and Petra moving with her.

During that time, Elena kills herself ... it's not explained why, her family doesn't know, and that compounds their grief with the feeling they might have been part of the cause. The core of the film is Petra working her way through her relationship with Elena. She looked up to her big sister, and later identified with her (people comment on how much Petra looks like Elena). There is a sense that Petra is struggling not to repeat Elena's sad ending.

I was reminded more than once of Sarah Polley's great movie Stories We Tell. Polley deconstructs the rules of documentary and then puts them back together. Costa's film has arty touches, but it is a more straightforward documentary than Polley's film. And perhaps not as involving for the viewer, although I can imagine if you'd been through a similar experience to Costa, you would be very involved. Elena is not off-putting, but it is insular, a bit distancing. It's a strong movie, nonetheless.


geezer cinema: beckett (ferdinando cito filomarino, 2021)

I guess John David Washington is a thing now. He starred in Tenet, which was a Geezer Cinema movie for us a couple of months ago. I wrote a few paragraphs without ever mentioning his name (I did talk about Elizabeth Debicki, though). He's not bad in Tenet, nor is he bad in Beckett, although his most notable feature seems to be the oddity of hearing the voice of his father Denzel coming out of John David's mouth. Beckett reminds you of other good movies, particularly the paranoid thrillers of the 70s. The problem is, Beckett isn't as good as the best of those films. Truth is, it's not as good as a lot of films that come to mind, and if that sounds vague, well, I'm still not sure what the hell Beckett was about so I'm going with vague.

Washington is a good choice to play an average Joe who needs to demonstrate some staying power during the kind of physical action that normally would go to a stuntman. But the character is like Job ... everything happens to him, and he keeps coming back for more. The Energizer bunny is a good comp, or the new-model Terminator played by Robert Patrick in T2 that was indestructible. I think they were trying to suggest John McClane in Die Hard, but Beckett is nowhere near as good a movie, and eventually the things that pile onto Beckett become too ludicrous to ignore. Linda Holmes began her review of the film:

There is a moment in the new Netflix thriller Beckett in which the main character played by John David Washington — who's already been in a rollover accident, been shot, been tased, been stung by bees, and likely broken both of his ankles — gets flex cuffs slapped on him, and now he's on the run ... in flex cuffs. The movie isn't even half over.

For what it's worth, Holmes kinda liked Beckett. And I wanted to like it ... I have nothing against mindless action, even though I usually roll my eyes at attempts to add meaningful context by claiming the movie is about politics, Greek, American, or whatever. But Beckett is ultimately just plain stupid, and by the time it ended, I had given up all efforts at any suspension of disbelief.

[Letterboxd list of Geezer Cinema movies]


sócrates (alexandre moratto, 2018)

This is the second 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 2 is called "Independent Spirit John Cassavetes Award Week":

From Wikipedia:

"The Independent Spirit John Cassavetes Award is presented to the creative team of a film budgeted at less than $500,000 by the Film Independent, a non-profit organization dedicated to independent film and independent filmmakers. It is named after actor/screenwriter/director John Cassavetes, a pioneer of American independent film.

Created for the 15th Independent Spirit Awards, it was originally called the Independent Spirit Award for Best First Feature (Under $500,000). After that, the rules changed so that any feature film budgeted under $500,000 could be eligible (regardless of how many films the director has made), hence the new name."

We're going low budget this week. Let's see what can be done with limited funding and unlimited passion.

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen film that has been nominated for the Independent Spirit John Cassavetes Award.

"Going low budget" is an understatement. Sócrates had a budget of $20,000, with which was produced a feature film of great skill. Alexandre Moratto was making his debut as a director, as was Christian Malheiros as the title character (Malheiros was not an amateur, having been in theater since he was 9). Moratto worked with Instituto Querô, a UNICEF program for at-risk youths. He was helped by another first-timer, writer Thayná Mantesso. The entire group worked closely together, and the resulting film is tight.

Malheiros isn't quite the whole story, but he is in every scene ... hell, he's in pretty much every shot. He plays Sócrates with internal strength ... he doesn't over-act, using his eyes to tell us what he is feeling. Moratto relies on a lot of close-ups that intensify the emotions of the characters. At the beginning of the film, Sócrates discovers his mother has died. Sócrates is 15, he seems to have no other family, and he lives in poverty. Everything works against him, but Sócrates makes every effort to improve his position. Throughout, he tries to make peace with his grief. The film, though, is not always peaceful. He becomes the lover of Maicon, played by yet another newcomer, Tales Ordakji, and their budding relationship is realistic but doomed, and the homophobia the two encounter is doubled down when Sócrates, having nowhere else to go, finally approaches his father, who beats him for being gay.

Somehow, with all of this, Moratto hasn't made a completely depressing movie. Malheiros gives us hope for Sócrates, even if events and society don't offer much help. Sócrates isn't just a good-for-you movie; it's a good movie, period.

(Among the films others chose for this week's challenge were Pieces of April and Old Joy. My brother Geoff, who is taking on the Challenge this year as well, has chosen Museum Hours.)


film fatales #83: zama (lucrecia martel, 2017)

Lucretia Martel takes her time between fiction features ... Zama was her first in nine years, and only her fourth since 2001. But she's busy ... between 2001 and the present, she has also made more than half a dozen shorts and a feature documentary. Zama was highly anticipated.

I wrote about her La Ciénaga,"You need to settle into its rhythms, you need to accept that Martel isn't going to hold your hand, but there's a difference between wanting the audience to be uncomfortable and making a movie that did not connect with an audience. Scenes begin and end in the middle, you aren't always immediately sure where you are, but you aren't lost." Much the same could be said about Zama.

It helps to approach Zama without trying to squeeze it into pre-conceived notions. The more you try to figure out what is going on, the less you'll get out of the movie. Which isn't to suggest Zama is too obscure for enjoyment. It's just that its pleasures have less to do with narrative thrust and more to do with the feel of each scene. The title character is an official functionary somewhere in Argentina. He wants to leave ... he spends much of the movie trying to facilitate his release ... his desire is understandable, but Zama becomes something of a comical figure because his hopes are never going to be fulfilled, and at times, he seems to be the only person that doesn't realize this. The arc of his story is probably the easiest thing to latch onto, but Martel isn't really concerned with audience ease. Meanwhile, the subject of imperialism wavers between text and subtext, as the nobility exists on the backs of slaves it barely acknowledges.

Zama is comical, although his trials finally become too extreme for us to laugh at. And life for the slaves is not funny at all. Martel effectively blends subtle commentary and absurd bureaucracy, all the while condemning the ruling class for their perfidies. It's a fine movie for a patient audience. #61 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century.

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


geezer cinema: ad astra (james gray, 2019)

Geezer Cinema returns after a three-week absence. (Geezer Cinema is my wife and I, both retired, seeing a movie every week, taking turns picking the film.)

My brother saw Ad Astra a few weeks ago. He didn't like it. He wrote, "Very slow moving. The father/son relationship isn't gripping. The film 'Gravity' set a high bar for cinematography in space, and this film doesn't come close to that bar."

I replied that I pretty much agreed with everything he said, but that I liked the movie.

Yes, Ad Astra is slow moving, but over the years, I've become more tolerant of that. I didn't care much about the father/son dynamic, either, and agree that this movie is no Gravity. But Gravity is one of my favorite movies, winner of seven Oscars, and if Ad Astra doesn't measure up, there is still plenty of room for it to be good.

Brad Pitt is the best thing about the movie. I've seen a lot of his movies, and he's hard to figure. He's been in some films I really didn't like (hello, Seven), and some films I liked a lot where he was a supporting character (Thelma & Louise, 12 Years a Slave). When he's the star, it's a mixed bag (Inglourious Basterds, World War Z). Ad Astra is somewhere between those two movies, not as good as Basterds, better than World War Z. But this might be Pitt's best performance in the lead. At the least, he carries the movie even if the rest is something less than great. (And when I say less than great, I'm talking in part about the roles played by Liv Tyler and Ruth Negga ... both are wasted.)


elite squad (josé padilha, 2007)

This is the latest film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20", "A 33 week long challenge where the goal each week is to watch a previously unseen feature length film from a specified category." Week 6 is called "South American Cinema Week":

In an effort to showcase films from South America, I have chosen three countries with rich and interesting film histories to represent the best of what the continent has to offer. I've boiled it down to these three to curate the selection, yet still leave it open for some fantastic film options.

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen film from Brazil, Chile, or Colombia.

It wasn't easy to predict how much I'd like Elite Squad. The primary script writer was Bráulio Mantovani, who got an Oscar nomination for the screenplay for the great City of God. The film was a big winner at several festivals. It was very popular in Brazil, enough so that Padilha and Mantovani put together a sequel, Elite Squad: The Enemy Within, which became one of the greatest box office hits in Brazilian history.

But you know how I count on critics. And the Metacritic score for Elite Squad was 33 ("Generally unfavorable reviews"). (Manohla Dargis of the New York Times called it "a relentlessly ugly, unpleasant, often incoherent assault on the senses" ... that "wants to have its grinding violence and sanctimony too".) So I didn't know what to expect.

I'm glad to report that while Dargis is not inaccurate, I'm tempted to comment, "You say that as if it's a bad thing". It's hard to look away from the screen, and yes, often that just means you want to see what outrage comes next. Padilha effectively convinces us to accept the point of view of the cops. This is true in particular for the narrator, Nascimento, whose voice overs provide an ongoing commentary on what we see. Nascimento sees evil in the gangs, but he also sees what corruption does to the cops, himself included. He is the source for much of the relentless ugliness.

It isn't easy to figure out where Padilha and Mantovani stand on the events in the movie. The gangs are bad, the cops fight them by any means necessary, and thus we are glad for the cops who guard against utter chaos. But the cops are bad, as well, society is fucked in any case, and to the extent the cops are successful, Elite Squad plays like a primer for fascism.

Ultimately, while I could see the connections between Elite Squad and City of God, the comparison that came strongly to my mind was with Shawn Ryan's American TV series The Shield. The basics are the same: gangs ruining the city, bad-ass cops in the Strike Team the only barrier between crime and average citizens, practically everyone is corrupt. But, even though it takes seven seasons, Ryan makes sure that the head of the Strike Team, Vic Mackey, gets his comeuppance. Nascimento, on the other hand, has gotten a promotion by the time of the sequel.

I realize now that my review reflects the comments from Dargis: I'm often incoherent.