film fatales #133: ascension (jessica kingdon, 2021)

2021 was a good year for documentaries, and the Oscar nominations actually got it right. At the least, the four nominees I have seen are all very good, and classic at best (Summer of Soul being my choice for best movie of the year). Jessica Kingdon (along with co-cinematographer Nathan Truesdell, who is crucial to the film) had the idea to show the "Chinese Dream" and the impact of capitalism ... she doesn't shy away from big topics. She has mentioned being influenced by Frederick Wiseman, and it shows ... Ascension lacks narration or even explanatory information, with Kingdon and the cameras being observers, not participants (at least in theory). The result is like Wiseman's more abstract work, like Meat. The film always looks interesting, and Kingdon has done great work in the editing room. She may not explain things in an overt manner, but the flow of images can be entrancing, and, like Wiseman, she lets the viewer construct meaning from those images. Dan Deacon's score adds a lot to our appreciation.

Kingdon films in China, and it's easy to assume Ascension is specific to its locale. But what we as viewers bring to the movie matters ... an American will react to certain scenes about work and workers based on our own experiences, but we don't have a monopoly on the meanings. If nothing else, Kingdon shows us regular Chinese workers, without the propaganda that influences how we think about working conditions there. Again, Kingdon's film is not judgmental. But you do get a feeling for the mentality of the Chinese worker, just as you would watching a documentary about workers of any country. What we get from Ascension is a people who are told that hard work leads to success. Kingdon lets us decide how true that statement is, or how it works in reality for Chinese workers.


shadow (zhang yimou, 2018)

This is the eleventh 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 11 is called "Fifth Generation Week":

Beginning in the mid-late 1980s, the rise of the so-called Fifth Generation of Chinese filmmakers brought increased popularity of Chinese cinema abroad. Most of the filmmakers who made up the Fifth Generation had graduated from the Beijing Film Academy in 1982 and included Zhang Yimou, Tian Zhuangzhuang, Chen Kaige, Zhang Junzhao and others.

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen Fifth Generation film.

My favorite "Fifth Generation" movie I have seen is probably Farewell My Concubine. As for Zhang Yimou, his movies are always gorgeous, and I usually like them, but for whatever reason, I've never found him great (on my list of favorite directors, he is #97). Shadow ranks with his best, and yes, it's gorgeous, but that means less than you'd think. It's a definite case of Taste Preferences, and you love movies that look great, his films in general and Shadow in particular should be your cup of tea. As I once said of Zhang's House of Flying Daggers, it was "the Elvira Madigan of its day. Whether that's a compliment or a pan is up to your subjective judgment."

The look of the film is unusual ... it's shot in color, but the sets and pretty much everything else work on black and white tones, which makes Shadow different from what you normally see. Cinematographer Zhao Xiaoding explained:

Once Zhang decided he was going to make a motion-picture version of a Chinese ink-brush painting, every department worked on every detail from it—to design of the sets to costumes to props. They were all what you saw on the screen, and there were screens and screens in the palace that were calligraphy on silk—like, waves and waves of them—and the interiors were all black, gray, and white, and so were the costumes, so that what you saw on the screen was actually what we shot in that regard.

Of course, we filmed in color, but that was the color of what we were filming, and with the skin and blood, there was some color-grading to make it all feel like it was of a piece. Basically, the departments, including FX, worked together to make sure what we built and what people were wearing was what we saw on the monitor and what we got in the movie. We had very little green-screen, so it was all a work of, “How do we create a Chinese ink-brush painting movie?”

No question Zhang got what he wanted, and it's a feast for the eyes. The action scenes are also effectively choreographed:

Shadow takes a long time setting up the various characters and their relationships to each other, and after a while, you might wonder where the action is. It's all necessary and pays off once the stories of the characters merge, but the film still feels a bit long. That pay off, though, is pretty spectacular. And the character arcs are Shakespearean, in a Titus Andronicus kind of way, especially in the final scenes.

(Other Zhang Yimou movies: Hero, House of Flying Daggers, A Woman, a Gun, and a Noodle Shop.)


what i watched

The Assassin (Hou Hsiao-hsien, 2015). This fine film deserves its own post, and originally, it had one, but my computer crashed, and now I'm just working from memory. Suffice to say that this was my first film by Hou Hsiao-hsien, and I'm ready to see more. The cinematography is gorgeous (by Ping Bin Lee), and while there are very few closeups and plenty of long takes, The Assassin is never static. I had seen this film called "Kubrickian", which isn't necessarily a point in its favor for me, but I can see why people make the comparison. Kubrick movies are always beautiful to look at, as well, and he's not afraid of a "slow" movie. The primary reason I found Hou's film superior to anything Kubrick gave us in his last 30 years is that Hou cared about actors. In the case of The Assassin, we are rewarded with many award-winning performances, especially from Shu Qi, who plays the title character with heartbreaking subtlety. She also conveys confidence in the fighting scenes, even though she came to the film untrained in fighting. #87 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century.

Geezer Cinema: The Little Things (John Lee Hancock, 2021). Denzel Washington plays a cop with a past, and if you've seen any other films with that description, you've already seen The Little Things. There are a couple of reasons the movie is a bit better than the others. The cast is full of interesting actors (Rami Malek, Jared Leto, Chris Bauer, Terry Kinney, Natalie Morales, Glenn Morshower, Maya Kazan). And while The Little Things deals with a serial killer, Hancock does not turn the killings into something enjoyable for voyeurs. It's not enough to turn this into a great movie, but it helps. Here are the first ten minutes:

The Magnificent Ambersons (Orson Welles, 1942). Watched this again ... earlier review is linked in the title.


godzilla: king of the monsters (michael dougherty, 2019)

I've been impressed enough by the previews for Godzilla vs. Kong that I decided I needed to prep. I'd seen the first film in the series, Godzilla, and liked it a lot. I began to catchup recently by watching Kong: Skull Island, which was a bit of a drop but still entertaining. Now I've seen Godzilla: King of the Monsters, and the drop is a lot bigger.

This one brings out a bunch of the Japanese originals ... Mothra, Ghidorah, Rodan, and of course Godzilla, all of whom are listed in the credits as playing themselves. This is more fun if you're a fan, although Rodan seems less important to the plot. Michael Dougherty shows his love for the genre, and the film isn't condescending. It's just not very good.

We're invited to care about the characters, and the cast is impressive. But the characters never get deeper than their stereotypical base: family struggling over events in the earlier movie, Japanese scientists with more understanding of the monsters, smart-ass American scientist, Charles Dance as a bad guy. Hey, these are stereotypes for a reason ... they make it easy for us to slide into the movie. But when we are asked to actually care about them, to react emotionally to them, I didn't care and didn't get emotional.

Perhaps it's a bit of a surprise, given the all-star cast, but the standout is someone making her first appearance in a feature film: Millie Bobby Brown, who had already established herself via the television series Stranger Things. Brown only just turned 17, but you can see she'll have a solid future. She isn't just playing the cute factor. Indeed, Brown is the one person who convinced me her character was worthy of an emotional response from the audience.

As for the action, it's fine, as expected, although during the climactic battle, they kept switching attention to the humans when all I wanted to see was Godzilla going up against Ghidorah. Truth is, the action in the Godzilla vs. Kong trailer excited me more.


geezer cinema: molly's game (aaron sorkin, 2017)

Aaron Sorkin's debut as a film director, after a long career as a writer as well as the creator of several good TV series (including my favorite, Sports Night). Sorkin indulges too often in soapbox speechifying, but he usually gets away with it because his dialogue is so much fun. There's no mistaking Molly's Game as anything other than a Sorkin film, and his directing doesn't deflect from that ... he does a good job of getting out of the way of the dialogue. He also shows a nice touch with actors ... Jessica Chastain and Idris Elba don't need Aaron Sorkin's help to give us great performances, but again, Sorkin knows enough to give his stars solid dialogue and then letting them show their stuff.

"Showing their stuff" takes on special significance for Chastain as Molly Bloom (yep, it's her real name ... Molly's Game is yet another "based on a true story" picture). Chastain, with two Oscar nominations and a Golden Globe (she received a Globe nomination for this film) is generally considered as an actress first and foremost. Her red-haired looks are striking, but they don't take over the parts she plays. But Molly Bloom, who ran poker games, had a particular look for work, and costume designed Susan Lyall knew how to exploit that look. Molly changes costumes in what feels like every scene involving poker games, and a key element in all of those outfits is cleavage. Chastain has said that the response to this aspect of her performance surprised her, stating about comments on a YouTube video of the film's trailer, "I’ve never done a movie where people have been talking about my body like that." It's all subjective ... my wife said she wouldn't have noticed if I hadn't brought it up. But the way Molly is presented, you start thinking Chastain's cleavage should have gotten a mention in the credits.

The poker games in the movie reminded me of the chess in The Queen's Gambit. Sorkin takes something that isn't inherently interesting on the screen and makes it exciting. The legal matters surrounding Molly's life, featuring Elba as her lawyer, are as good as the rest of the film, this time reminding me of similar scenes in The Social Network, which Sorkin also wrote.

I don't want to overstate things. Molly's Game is entertaining, the acting of the leads is excellent, and what more could you ask for? Yet I never felt like I was watching a classic, or a movie I'd enjoy watching again. Still, Molly's Game is easily worth watching a first time.


empire of the sun (steven spielberg, 1987)

Another movie for "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 20 is called "Alternate Oscars Week".

The past couple years, the week before the Oscars has been saved as a Best Picture nominee category for that year's awards. But following last year's supreme blunder of a Best Picture winner, I say we skip the normal category (at least for this year) and check out some films that should've won instead. According to Danny Peary, of course, who suggests that the Academy usually gets it wrong anyway.

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen film from Danny Peary's Alternate Oscars: Best Picture list.

This was a bit tricky. When Week 20 came around, I couldn't find anything from Peary's list that I hadn't seen and was available for streaming. So I watched The Beast of Yucca Flats, which was my Week 32 pick, and at the time I thought I'd be in Spain by then and wouldn't be able to watch it on schedule. Whatever ... it's confusing, but it explains why I'm watching the Week 20 movie on Week 32.

I am a fan of Steven Spielberg's. I think I've seen more movies directed by him than by any other director, and I liked most of them. Four are canonical for me (Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and E.T.), a couple of others come close (Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and Schindler's List), and many more I would watch again in a second (especially Minority Report). Only Hook was a stinker; for the most part, I find Spielberg reliable, and not just in a good-but-not-great way, because more than once he has given us greatness.

For me, Empire of the Sun is in the middle. There are some great moments ... face it, Spielberg specializes in Great Moments ... and Christian Bale, 13 years old and at the beginning of his career, is tremendous. As I have often said, when we see a great performance by a child, at least some credit needs to go to the director for eliciting that performance. (It's fine to say Bale turned out to be a great actor, but he was an unknown at the time of this movie.) Still, the film felt long (it is long, at 153 minutes, and I felt every one of those minutes). I'm not sure what could have been cut ... the various segments were all important, and the length gave the movie the feel of an epic ... there were multiple "almost endings" that were a bit much, but I may be nitpicking.

The thing is, I was aware when Spielberg was going for one of his Great Moments, but I wasn't awed by them the way I was in, for instance, Close Encounters. Despite its epic nature, Empire of the Sun is essentially a coming-of-age story that takes place in a notable historical period. I don't know how Spielberg could have done better ... trying to combine the intimate story of a boy becoming a man with World War II isn't easy.

Cinematographer Allen Daviau got a well-deserved Oscar nomination for his work here (Daviau sadly died just a few days ago). Everything in the movie is professional at the highest level. But the one thing that makes it stand out is Christian Bale.

This is almost a brilliant scene. The Americans have finally come to save the day, and Bale's character, Jim, who loves airplanes, is overcome with joy. It's beautifully shot, and Bale delivers. It is peak Spielberg. But then here comes the inevitable John Williams score, and while it is meant to reflect the grand emotions of the moment, it's just piling on. Spielberg couldn't resist.


geezer cinema: once upon a time ... in hollywood (quentin tarentino, 2019)

If nothing else, the pandemic gives me the chance to catch up. Missed this last year ... rectified it for this week's Geezer Cinema. Not the best way to watch it: on a 30" TV with no external sound system, and the Starz version was cropped to fit the screen. It seemed like Tarantino and cinematographer Robert Richardson may have anticipated this ... even when two characters were on opposite sides of the screen, they managed to be visible on our TV.

I once wrote of Tarantino, "Tarantino’s flaws are easy to pick out, because they are often the same as his good points." It would be easy to balance out the good and the bad as a measure of how successful a Tarantino film is, but I don't know that it works, or rather, for me, the good always outweighs the bad. I've seen all of his movies except The Hateful Eight, and I've liked them all. The only thing those flaws do is prevent Tarantino from making a classic, but his best is way more than good enough. And Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood is one of his best.

For one thing, every actor wants a chance to work with Tarantino's dialogue, so he is able to do things like get Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt to star in his movie, as a fading actor and his stunt man. Tarantino's love of pop culture comes out partly in the way he casts his films with favorite actors of his that haven't been seen much of late (Clu Gulager, Rebecca Gayheart, Brenda Vaccaro). Besides Leo and Brad, OUATIH trots out Al Pacino and Bruce Dern. There are younger actors like Margot Robbie, Margaret Qualley, Maya Hawke, and Dakota Fanning. He brings back people who have been in previous QT pictures: Kurt Russell, Zoe Bell, Michael Madsen, Tim Roth (Roth gets a credit even though his part was edited out of the movie). I don't know if I thought of this before, but at least here, Tarantino shows an eye for actors better known for television: Timothy Olyphant, Luke Perry (his final role), Damian Lewis (who looks so much like Steve McQueen you think they used CGI), Costa Ronin, Damon Herriman, Lena Dunham, Mikey Madison (a long way from her work on Better Things), Sydney Sweeney, Scoot McNairy. OK, I've made my point.

Tarantino applies the same personalized touch to his soundtracks ... as we were watching, I told my wife if the official soundtrack included every song that we hear even for a short bit, it would be at least a 3-disc set (it turned out to only have 21 songs, along with commercials and DJ patter).

His connection to the (movie) past is one of those good-but-flawed aspects of his movies. I could make another list of historical figures who appear in OUATIH ... the fictional Leo's character lives next door to Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate, and of course, there's the Manson family. You might be fooled into thinking this is a true story, although you'd quickly figure out you were wrong. Perhaps the key is in the title: "Once Upon a Time" suggests a fairy tale is coming our way.

I'd be remiss if I didn't point out the way Tarantino indulges himself in ways that result in really long movies, but that indulging is often delightful. His recreations of old television series are detailed ... he makes up fake shows that look just like the real ones, and he has no problem stopping his movie for a bit just to show a bit of one of those excursions.

As the film moseyed along, I felt that rather than create tension, Tarantino was just relying on our knowledge of Manson, Tate, et al to give unearned suspense to his movie. As Mick LaSalle wrote, "It’s amazingly discursive. Tarantino knows he has our attention, because he knows that we know where the movie is heading, toward that fateful night in Bel Air. He also knows we’re not exactly in a hurry to get there." But the tension is real in the last part of the movie, partly because "we know where the movie is heading", yes, but also because Tarantino takes us there. And, of course, we don't necessarily know where it's heading, we just think we do.

Brad Pitt got an Oscar for his performance (Supporting Actor ... Leo was up for Best Actor, but the truth is, they are co-leads), and he deserved it. He commands the screen, even though he doesn't always seem to be doing anything, and even though he's working with DiCaprio, who is pretty good himself.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is #132 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 film of the 21st century.


geezer cinema: bloodshot (david s.f. wilson, 2020)

Stories from the Pandemic: Bloodshot is the first movie in our weekly Geezer Cinema date that we paid to stream (well, also to own, whatever). It's been 20 days since we actually went to a movie theater. Since then, Geezer Cinema has been Contagion (free streaming) and Us (recorded on the DVR). Bloodshot is part of the new trend ... is it a trend if it's temporary? Is it temporary? ... of studios releasing movies almost immediately after their theater opening, because no one is going to the movies right now.

Bloodshot is a superhero origin story based on a comic, but it's different enough to keep our attention. For one thing, Vin Diesel's character, Ray Garrison, isn't quite a superhero, although he gets to act like one. For another thing, while Bloodshot has enough going on to qualify as an action movie, it's really science-fiction. And the plot has just enough twists to keep you on your toes, although it's not too hard to figure out how it will all end (for one thing, it is clearly intended as the first in a franchise).

It's nothing special. Might have made a bigger impression in IMAX, which is how we originally intended to watch it before we couldn't go outside any more. But it's serviceable, and Vin Diesel is always good. Eiza González is almost unbelievably gorgeous, which doesn't get in the way of her action chops. Sam Heughan (equally gorgeous, although they do what they can to cancel it out in his case) will satisfy any Outlander fans who decide to watch. Dave Wilson, a Visual Effects guy, makes his directorial debut. If the pandemic prevents Bloodshot from being a huge hit and ruins the chances for a franchise, I suppose I will eventually forget I ever saw it. But I enjoyed it, anyway.

Here are the first nine minutes of the film:

(Here is a letterboxd list of Geezer Cinema movies.)


geezer cinema: 1917 (sam mendes, 2019)

1917 is a movie with a trick. It's a technical trick, and it isn't always clear that it serves the picture as well as a more ordinary approach might. But the trick is so well done that you can't help but admire it, even though, paradoxically, the film works best when you forget about the trick.

That trick is to make 1917 appear to be shot in one take. You can't help but notice it at the beginning, when the two heroes are making their way through a long trench (1917 is a World War I story). But as the heroes encounter increasingly dangerous happenings, you occasionally forget about the one-take angle. I don't want to say the movie is at its best in those moments ... the technical achievements really are remarkable. But what raises 1917 above the level of a novelty is the acting, in particular that of Dean-Charles Chapman and George MacKay as the heroes. There is plenty of war horror, but Chapman and especially MacKay are the human element. That is what makes 1917 more than a trick.

1917 is nominated for 10 Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Cinematography. The cinematography award will surely go to Roger Deakins, and the film is worthy of many of the other Oscar categories. The narrative draws us in, and we really want the end to resemble a happy one. The movie is often hard to watch; it's not exactly entertaining, although this is appropriate for a war movie. But after two hours, we feel like we deserve a little something as we leave the theater.

What I especially liked is the way the trickery is human rather than CGI. You know that real people pulled this off. It's a bit like what makes Fury Road so much better than other recent action pictures.

World War I was one of the stupidest and most brutal wars, even given that all wars are stupid and brutal. 1917 doesn't stop to notice this ... no historical context is provided, and a lot of the brutality lies on the ground as the heroes make their trek. It might have been a better movie if such context were at least hinted at. Certainly it would be different. But the accomplishment of Mendes, Deakins and the rest isn't to be denied.


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.)