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.

geezer cinema/film fatales #123: worth (sara colangelo, 2020)

(This will be the last Geezer Cinema for a while ... we'll get back to it in November.)

Worth tells the based-on-a-true-story of the attempt to assign dollar figures to compensation payouts for victims of 9/11. The head of the compensation fund, Kenneth Feinberg, (Michael Keaton), takes a big picture approach, but the film doesn't just buy into this. Over the course of the film we learn about several of the individuals due compensation ... not a lot, but enough to remind us we're talking lots of people, not just one big group of people. One or two victims are singled out for more extensive examination. It's a well-structured film, starting with the view from the top and then showing the effects on those who aren't there.

The cast is impressive. Besides Keaton, there's Amy Ryan, Stanley Tucci, and plenty of "hey, it's that guys". And they do more than show up ... each delivers a solid performance.

There are a couple of flaws, though. First, the legal situation is never clearly explained. We know that the airlines want to cut a deal. We know there are concerns about the effect of everything on the economy. We know that some people feel they are being screwed over. But most of it whooshed over my head. I fell back on rooting for the victims, and that was good enough, but I still can't really tell you about the inner workings of the Victims Compensation Fund.

Also, Feinberg was a consultant on the film, which may explain why Worth is about him far more than it is about the victims. It's not that Feinberg's character is whitewashed ... he comes across as a decent guy who doesn't always get "It". But the central theme of Worth is how damaging the process is to people like Feinberg, not to the victims. Given that theme, Worth is fine, but I wanted more.

Worth is the first film I have seen directed by Sara Colangelo, and she does OK. I wouldn't be surprised if I never heard from her again, but it's just as likely she's got some great movies in her future.

[Letterboxd list of Film Fatales]

[Letterboxd list of Geezer Cinema]

my winnipeg (guy maddin, 2007)

This is the second 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 2 is called "Northern Exposure: Guy Maddin Week":

Canada's own Guy Maddin offers up a unique lens in which to view life throughout all of his films. If nothing else, you're sure to see something wholly unique this week.

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen film directed by Guy Maddin.

This film is my introduction to Guy Maddin, who is one of the most idiosyncratic of directors. My Winnipeg is an odd movie, hard to describe, and apparently it is very much like many of Maddin's films. Sometimes a filmmaker will create something so insular, its meanings are clear only to the people who made the movie. That's not the case with My Winnipeg. You always know what is going on in an individual scene, it's just that as the film progresses, you begin to doubt what you think you know, gradually realizing that this documentary is in fact an extremely subjective memoir of Maddin's home town.

And then it becomes clear that "subjective" doesn't really get it. Maddin is inventing things out of icicles, and nothing he shows us can be trusted. Which doesn't mean the film is aimless. In fact, you could argue that Maddin's inventions get closer to "his Winnipeg" than would a more straightforward, "realistic" representation of "facts".

Even if the results can be frustrating, Maddin is expert at giving us the movie he has in his head. He frequently uses techniques we think of as belonging to silent cinema, and he mixes authentic-looking recreations with ... well, actually, I'm not sure anything in My Winnipeg is presented as it happened. The film is narrated by Maddin, and Maddin is a character in what we see, but he's played by an actor, Darcy Fehr. His mother is played by the legendary Ann Savage (Detour). We learn that Winnipeg is the sleepwalking capital of the world. We learn about a television series, LedgeMan, with a character who is always threatening to jump off a ledge to his death. We learn about a general strike in 1919. This last actually happened ... I don't think any of the others ever happened except in Maddin's imagination.

It's all very intriguing, forcing us to confront the ways our memories override actual occurrences. #135 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century, and #603 on the TSPDT users poll of our favorite films.

cloudburst (thom fitzgerald, 2011)

This will be short and not-so-sweet. A few days ago we watched Supernova, which told the story of a long-lasting gay couple. I noted at the time that "Stanley Tucci and Colin Firth feel so right in their parts; they are recognizable as a long-term couple". Cloudburst also stars award-winning actors, this time Olympia Dukakis and Brenda Fricker. Here, too, we get a story about a long-lasting gay couple. But the similarities end there.

Supernova featured real people. Cloudburst features caricatures. The moments when something rings true to real life are few and far between. Dukakis is the foul-mouthed dike, Fricker is the blind partner, and Ryan Doucette has the Brad Pitt role. Yes, Cloudburst plays like Thelma and Louise with the gay subtext moved to the front. But the characters in Cloudburst lack subtlety ... it's as if Thelma and Louise focused solely on Thelma's stupid husband Darryl. At one point I asked my wife where the women of Cloudburst got the money to travel as they do, and she replied that they were retired. Retired from what, I asked, and she said we don't know, they retired before the movie started. Exactly, I stated ... we know nothing about these people beyond their roles as stereotypes. I'd say Cloudburst was a complete waste of time, but apparently some people like it, so YMMV.