film fatales #159: take this waltz (sarah polley, 2011)

Thought I'd check out the only Sarah Polley movie I'd missed, ahead of hopefully seeing Women Talking tomorrow. It's my least favorite of the three I've seen, which is not an insult ... I think Stories We Tell is an outright classic, and Away from Her was also very good. Take This Waltz has a lot going for it, starting with Michelle Williams, Seth Rogen, and Sarah Silverman. Polley paints a loving picture of Toronto (Luc Montpellier is the cinematographer) ... Polley idealizes Toronto, and the summer setting gives us a different Canada than we're used to (people have fans on in their homes because it's hot). The film is an effective rom-com (or better, rom-drama).

But there's one big problem, at least for me. Take This Waltz is about a married couple, Margot and Lou, still in love, but together just long enough to reveal a few empty spaces. The wife cute-meets a man who lives across the street, and much of the movie is in the will-they/won't they vein. The problem is that man, played by Luke Kirby, struck me as a creepy stalker more than a possible love partner. Williams does a great job of expressing the yearnings of her character ... I want her to find happiness. But I never wanted her to connect with this creepy guy.

I don't know who to blame. Polley, for creating the character? Kirby, for portraying the character? Me, for disliking the character? All I know is, while I understood why Margot was drifting away from Lou, she could do a lot better than Mr. Stalker Guy. (Not to mention, he works as a pedicab driver in Toronto, an excess of cute that never worked.)

mommy (xavier dolan, 2014)

Well, that was an experience. Mommy is fascinating, excruciating, honest yet extreme. It was not a comfortable movie to watch, but it's not meant to be comfortable, and it's worth the effort if you can get past the excruciating part.

Mommy takes place in Québec, and is in French. I had seen only one film by Xavier Dolan, The Death & Life of John F. Donovan, which was only OK (although it was much better than the reviews, which trashed it). Dolan was only 25 when he made Mommy, but it was already his fifth feature. I'm unfamiliar with the lead actors, although they have solid resumes ... I've just missed them. (To name them: Anne Dorval, Antoine Olivier Pilon, and Suzanne Clément.) The story sounds promising enough: a widowed mother has a teenage son with ADHD who is violent at times, and we watch as she does what she can to keep him from being institutionalized. (We get a note at the beginning of the film informing us of a fictional Canadian law that allows parents to put their troubled kids away.)

But Dolan makes a decision that right away puts us in the center of this intense family. He uses a 1:1 aspect ratio (i.e., the screen is square) and has lots of closeups, which puts us literally in the faces of the characters as they go through their at-times traumatic emotions. Think of how Sergio Leone uses closeups to fill the screen with faces. His larger-than-life wide screen compositions mean those faces are often placed in the middle of an expanse of territory. Dolan gives us the closeups, but removes the expanse. Between the aspect ratio, the intense family drama, and the excellent acting, Dolan drags us into his story, and there is no escape. It's not a horror movie ... you aren't waiting for the next jump scare. But you often want to leave the room, to let these people have their privacy.

It's almost giving too much away to mention that for a brief scene, the screen opens up. I won't spoil the occasion for the change, but it has a definite effect on the viewer.

It's unfair to single out one of the actors, but Antoine Olivier Pilon as the teen is uncanny. He makes you forget he is acting, even as he is chewing the scenery ... he feels like the person he is playing. It's not the kind of amateur performance some directors use to make a character seem "real", but Dolan and Pilon force us to see what is inside the boy, and again, it's not comfortable. #384 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century.

the territory (alex pritz, 2022)

The Territory is a documentary about the Indigenous Uru-eu-wau-wau in Brazil, who live in a rainforest constantly threatened by encroachment from people who believe in "progress", which for the average person means "everyone dreams of having a home" and for the rich and powerful means "use the land to make lots of money". The Uru-eu-wau-wau aren't just fighting to protect their homeland, they are fighting to save the planet ... they know the importance of the rainforest.

Alex Pritz takes an interesting approach. He takes his cameras into the rainforest, and builds trust with the Uru-eu-wau-wau, with whom he clearly champions. But he also films some settlers, the ones who want a home of their own. He manages to gain their trust, as well, and it's a tenuous construction. He doesn't defame the settlers, he lets them present their case, and they do seem to trust him. But the viewer never forgets which "side" Pritz is on.

COVID had an impact on the making of the film. Pritz describes this in an interview:

Having spent months prior to the pandemic working with the Uru-eu-wau-wau to develop an Indigenous media team, the pandemic forced us to put this training into action. Through contactless drops, we delivered a new set of higher quality cameras to the Uru-eu-wau-wau villages and set up a new series of online workshops in cinematography, sound, and documentary storytelling. We hired a team of Indigenous cinematographers to film themselves as they isolated themselves deep within the forest, and the results were spectacular: by removing myself from the equation, we gained a firsthand perspective into the Uru-eu-wau-wau experience that never would’ve been possible if it were filmed by outsiders. The footage coming from the Uru-eu-wau-wau was unlike anything we had shot before: intimate family moments, intense scenes of action, and an honesty in the footage that helped us connect with the characters in newfound ways.

"Intimate" perfectly describes how much of the footage of the Uru-eu-wau-wau affects us. And the willingness of Pritz and his team to turn over some of the film making to the natives demonstrates how committed he is to their point of view. It's this, perhaps, that tilts the overall impact of The Territory in favor of the Indigenous people, even as he refuses to make the settlers evil ... they are misguided, uninformed, but we understand their point of view, as well.

geezer cinema/film fatales #151/african-american directors series: the woman king (gina prince-bythewood, 2022)

The Woman King delivers on everything promised in the trailer: great action, powerful women, inspiring story.

Tony and Oscar winner Viola Davis is as you've never seen her before, and it is inspiring to have a black woman in her mid-50s personify the action heroine. There are fine performances throughout the movie, so many that it's not fair to single out anyone in particular (but I'm going to do it anyway and mention Lashana Lynch). Gina Prince-Bythewood gives us strong and coherent action scenes (shoutout to fight choreographer Jénel Stevens). She pulls this off on a budget of only $50 million. Compare that to the $70 million she had to work with on The Old Guard, a solid actioner with Charlize Theron that was released on Netflix, and you'll ask yourself why after proving her action chops, Prince-Bythewood got a smaller budget to make a film centered on Black people.

But then there's the controversy, and while I tended to agree with Prince-Bythewood, who said "You cannot win an argument on Twitter", and I thought this was another case of people condemning a movie before they'd seen it, now I'm not so sure. The Woman King plays as intended if you don't know any of the history of Dahomey. But the more you learn about the history, the more problematic The Woman King becomes. (Julian Lucas has an excellent piece in The New Yorker that illuminates this.) The Woman King does acknowledge some of Dahomey's participation in the slave trade, but it deflects that history to make a "better" story. In the movie, the slave trading is connected to the Oyo Empire, who are the enemies of Dahomey, and the fight led by the Agojie (Amazons) is against slavery. In reality, Dahomey was complicit in the slave trade. As Lucas notes, "'The Woman King' chooses to make resistance to slavery its moral compass, then misrepresents a kingdom that trafficked tens of thousands", and "The film’s conceit is, charitably, an elaborate exercise in wishful thinking: Wouldn’t it be nice if Dahomey’s brave women warriors had also been fighters for justice?"

These are all worthy of discussion ... I have learned more about the history of Dahomey from reading about the protests against the film. As good as the movie is, I'm a bit surprised by the clunkiness of the responses from Prince-Bythewood and Davis to the criticisms. Davis claimed "Most of the story is fictionalized. It has to be." In the same interview, Julius Tennon (a producer on the film who also acts in it and is Davis' husband) says "It's history but we have to take license. We have to entertain people."

This may be why The Woman King, for all its excellence, isn't as good as Black Panther. The latter film is entirely fictional, and so the story can be reflective of reality without needing to copy it. The Woman King wants us to think it's based on fact, but then alters facts to "entertain people".

what i watched

The Kid Detective (Evan Morgan, 2020). Someone recommended this to me, although I admit I have no idea who that person was. I doubt I would have seen it if the mystery person hadn't suggested it. It's written and directed by Evan Morgan, who is new to me, and stars Adam Brody, who I know little about. There were a couple of That Guys in the cast (Tzi Ma, Peter MacNeill), and Sophie Nélisse, who impressed me as the younger version of Melanie Lynskey's character in Yellowjackets. Morgan plays around a bit with the detective genre, and things move along nicely. It's a good enough way to spend 100 minutes, but I suspect in six months, I'll have forgotten I saw it. Here are the first nine minutes:

Geezer Cinema: Downton Abbey: A New Era (Simon Curtis, 2022). This one is easy to summarize: if you loved the show, you'll love the movie (and you've likely already seen it). If you know nothing about Downton Abbey, you don't need to watch this movie. Curtis and creator/writer Julian Fellowes take care of the fan base from the start. If you are a fan, you'll enjoy seeing all of the characters get their moments, and of the new cast members, there's Dominic West and Nathalie Baye to enjoy. I've been with Downton Abbey since the beginning, and while I have my problems with its representation of the class structure, it does suck you in.

geezer cinema: cyrano (joe wright, 2021)

I can only speak for myself, but Cyrano would be a lot better if it wasn't a musical. The actual singing is OK ... it is fun to learn that Peter Dinklage can sing, as if there was anything he couldn't do. He is easily the best thing about the movie. But saying he can sing and saying he should sing are not the same thing. He is such a great actor, he doesn't need these songs.

And this goes for everyone else in the movie. Haley Bennett, who plays Roxanne, has quite a nice voice, in fact. The songs are written by members of The National, a band that has been around for more than 20 years, so you know you're getting a level of professionalism, at least (I rarely listen to them, myself, so I have no opinion on their qualities). The songs in the film may help the narrative along, but that is not my favorite kind of music. The presentation of the songs is fairly low-key, which fits with the overall tone of the film, but I don't think people are going to leave the theater singing the songs. Only one of them stood out for me in the entire film, "Wherever I Fall", sung by a few soldiers before they go out on a suicidal mission (Glen Hansard is one of the soldiers).

Cyrano is a family affair. Director Joe Wright has a daughter with Haley Bennett.  Writer Erica Schmidt is married to Peter Dinklage. I imagine it was a nice film to make for all concerned. I usually like Wright's films, especially his Pride & Prejudice. Cyrano is nominated for a Best Costume Design Oscar, and that makes sense. I've seen three of the other four nominees, and while I'm not the best judge, Cyrano was as good as any of them (I might pick Cruella, which isn't much of a movie, but the costumes raise it up a bit). I'd say Cyrano is a harmless movie, and some people might love it, even if I didn't.

Here is the kind of thing that's missing from Cyrano. You could say the comparison is unfair ... Joe Wright is a fine director, but Steven Spielberg is one of the great directors. West Side Story is an acknowledged classic (although I'd argue it's not nearly as good as its reputation). But you take perhaps West Side Story's most memorable song (i.e. people still remember it many decades later), toss in one of the year's best performances from Ariana DeBose, and let Spielberg loose with a camera and a musical, and you get something like this:

geezer cinema: licorice pizza (paul thomas anderson, 2021)

We went to a movie theater for the first time in a couple of months. Chose a movie at a place where you can pick your reserved seats in advance, meaning we could see only a few people would be there and our seats would be mostly isolated from anyone else who showed up. When we got to our seats, we found a family of four who apologized, explaining that they had moved from their own seats because they had been seated in the disabled section, which separated them with spaces in between the four seats. We said no problem, and took the same seats on the other side of the row. After the movie started, the family got up and left. We can only assume the reason their seats were goofy is because they were in the wrong theater. As soon as Licorice Pizza started up, they left.

I've seen quite a few of Paul Thomas Anderson's movies. I liked Magnolia the most, and have fond memories of Boogie Nights. I am not much of a fan of There Will Be Blood. I've been looking forward to this one because of Alana Haim, and she didn't disappoint in her acting debut.

The movie was a bit long, and there were a couple of scenes that had weird racist stereotypes towards Japanese ... bad enough right there, but I couldn't figure out why the scenes were even in the movie, and when a film is a bit long, I get impatient with the excess. How you feel about the ending will likely depend on what you think of the age difference between the two lovebirds. The most common point people make is that if the genders were switched, and it was a 25-year-old man partnered with a 15-year-old girl, it would be creepy. So the question is, does it matter that here, it's a 25-year-old woman and a 15-year-old boy? I don't have an easy answer. Haim and Cooper Hoffman (another debut ... he's the son of Philip Seymour Hoffman) are both wonderful, which matters because if there is no chemistry between the two people in a rom-com, there's no movie. It's understandable why the teenaged boy is infatuated with the grown-up woman. It's not so clear why she is interested in him. As she says, answering her own question, "I think it's weird that I hang out with Gary and his 15-year-old friends all the time." Because I never quite understood why he meant so much to her, the ending seemed abrupt. Much as I was enjoying the movie, and loving Alana, I really didn't want to see them get together in the end. My wife was less conflicted ... she thought it was just wrong, because of the age difference.

Ultimately, I was more bothered by the Japanese stereotypes. And I was sorry Alana Haim didn't get an Oscar nomination.

[Letterboxd list of 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]

geezer cinema: house of gucci (ridley scott, 2021)

I often talk about movies that "aren't for me". Usually that means I can see an artistic vision behind a film, assume the director has succeeded in their aims, but that I don't really like the film, anyway. (The Terrence Malick Syndrome.) Honestly, I'm not sure what Ridley Scott wanted to do with House of Gucci, so when I say it's "not for me", I'm speaking of something different. I run hot and cold with Scott ... Thelma and Louise is the only one of his movies I really loved, and movies like Black Rain are best forgotten. No, the reason House of Gucci is not for me is that I don't care about the fashion industry, and Scott doesn't entice me enough to be entertained for more than  2 1/2 hours. I spent those hours wondering why I was supposed to be interested in the Guccis, when I wasn't trying to figure out why it was so long.

It's only fair to note that enough silliness is going on to prevent House of Gucci from being boring. But ultimately, the movie has only one thing anyone will remember: Lady Gaga. The movie walks a thin line between camp and straight drama, and Gaga is right there with the camp aspects. But she delivers the drama, as well. She is easily the best thing in the movie.

Even she struggles with her accent. Everyone speaks with an Italian accent, and at best, the results are variable. ("It’s Time to Talk About the Accents in House of Gucci.") Gaga put a lot of work into her accent, and once you get used to it, it ceases to matter (her performance overwhelms our misgivings). And she's hardly the only culprit. Jeremy Irons works in the fine Michael Caine tradition ... he mostly just sounds English. Al Pacino, the King of Bad Accents for his work in Scarface, sounds like Al Pacino playing an Italian, which is better than nothing. Adam Driver? You got me. And do we really expect Salma Hayek to have a perfect Italian accent? I didn't care, I just wished she had more screen time.

Meanwhile, Jared Leto gives a performance so over the top, I suspect some people will say it's brilliant. It's not.

So House of Gucci is not for me. But it's not a masterpiece that I didn't get ... it's a mediocre film I didn't get, which is not the same thing. But it is still worth seeing for Lady Gaga.

(I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the soundtrack. Blondie, Donna Summer, Bowie, New Order, George Michael ... all this and more!)

film fatales #125: passing (rebecca hall, 2021)

Passing seems like a sure contender come Oscar season. Based on an acclaimed novel by Nella Larsen, Passing has some award-worthy acting from Tessa Thompson (Irene) and Ruth Negga (Clare), a good supporting cast featuring  André Holland, Alexander Skarsgård, Bill Camp, and Gbenga Akinnagbe, and a thoughtful approach from first-time director Rebecca Hall, who also wrote it and produced it. (Hall is an actor, most recently in Godzilla vs. Kong.)

Larsen's book is more accurately described as a novella, and Hall manages to get most of the book into the 99-minute running time. The film isn't fast-moving ... in fact, it gets a bit slow at times ... but viewers, both those who know the book and those who don't, may find events confusing at times. I watched with a large group of family, and most of us found a lot of the movie unclear. Everyone seemed to want more context, more background, more clear explanation of the characters and their actions.

Yes, but ... it's true that Hall lets the audience do some of the work of breaking down the story. She doesn't hand out in-movie CliffsNotes; she allows us to think for ourselves. I'm not sure this works ... as I say, most of my family were just confused. But Hall's vision, reflecting Larsen's, allows for ambiguity.

In the book, Irene is the clear narrator, and the unreliable nature of her perspective is clear. Once you realize the story is told solely from her perspective, you can begin to lose trust in her version of events. Hall doesn't go as far with this in her movie. Irene is the main character, but the perspective is more omniscient. We miss the ways the narrative is unreliable ... events seem more straightforward.

I liked the movie more after I thought about it. As I watched, I found my mind wandering, but reflecting back, I felt Hall had made some astute choices. Filming in B&W foregrounded questions about the tenuous concept of black and white "races" ... combined with the 4:3 Academy aspect ratio, Passing has the look of a film made in the 1920s, which feels appropriate. I can't say Passing is a movie for everyone, but I suspect it will look even better on subsequent viewings.