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.)

geezer cinema/film fatales #58: the farewell (lulu wang, 2019)

The latest movie in the weekly trip to the theater that my wife and I have started since she retired. This was my choice. I only recognized two names from the cast, Awkwafina and Tzi Ma, and knew nothing about writer/director Lulu Wang. What I did know is that the film has gotten excellent reviews, which is usually good enough for me. Having now seen The Farewell, I can say those accolades were well-deserved.

The Farewell is the kind of movie I often describe as being known for what it is not. While it is sentimental, it is not overly so, and that emotion does not overwhelm the film. It is touching but not smarmy. You might think a movie about a grandmother dying will be predictable, but The Farewell is surprising without seeming random. Events occur in a natural way, without ever falling into cliché. In essence, The Farewell is a movie that will be appreciated by most people, even if the premise doesn't sound like your cup of tea.

The acting has a lot to do with the film's successes. Awkwafina rises to the challenge of carrying a movie, although the supporting cast is very strong and she is never carrying things on her own. Even better is Zhao Shuzhen as the grandmother. While she is apparently a fairly big star in China, the 75-year-old actor is making what is, to the best of my knowledge, her feature film debut (at the least, it's her first American movie). Everything I say about the film's positive qualities is demonstrated in her performance: emotional, but also funny, touching, but also knowing, unpredictable in the way a character and an actor can make believable. I would also be remiss if I didn't mention Diana Lin, another actor I'd never heard of, who is excellent as a woman who holds her emotions in check.

There's no telling what went on during the making of the movie, but when an entire cast shines, I assume the director had a lot to do with it. Since Wang also wrote the dialogue, I'd say she is the number one reason The Farewell is so good.

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series. I'm going to have to update this soon.)

what i watched

Catch-22 (Mike Nichols, 1970). Better than I remembered it being. It's still like a revue of the novel, with various highlights, doing better with the humor than with the existential angst. Features a ridiculous cast: Alan Arkin, Bob Balaban, Martin Balsam, Richard Benjamin, Marcel Dalio, Norman Fell, Art Garfunkel , Jack Gilford, Charles Grodin, Buck Henry, Bob Newhart, Anthony Perkins, Paula Prentiss, Martin Sheen, Jon Voight, Orson Welles. Better than reading the CliffsNotes, I suppose, at least more fun. I see I used the word "better" three times ... that may give the movie more credit than it deserves.

I didn't know this, but there was a TV pilot in 1973 with Richard Dreyfuss as Yossarian. It's pretty bad, with an incongruous laugh track. I'd link to a video, but it's been taken down from YouTube. I'd recommend you try to hunt it down, but it's awful enough that it's not worth your time unless you're a completist. Of course, there's also a new mini-series, which I'll get to once I finish it.

Ip Man 3 (Wilson Yip, 2015). Follows Ip Man and Ip Man 2 (duh). Donnie Yen is a little older with each outing, but unlike someone like Jackie Chan, who relies so heavily on stunts, Yen mostly sticks to martial arts, which I imagine aren't quite as hard on an old body as some of Jackie's crazier stunts. Lynn Hung returns one last time as Ip Man's wife ... she's not always given a lot to do, but at 5'10" she certainly stands out, and her acting is as good as she is tall. Max Zhang makes his first appearance in the series, and he's so good they gave him a spinoff, Master Z: Ip Man Legacy, which I haven't seen. Nor have I seen the recent Ip Man 4, with Yen returning once again. (In fairness to me, I don't think Ip Man 4 has been released yet.) A final fight between Yen and Zhang is the highlight, but there's also Ip Man going up against "Frank", played by Mike Tyson, that isn't as bad as it sounds. Ip Man 3 was the biggest success of the three at the box office. For reasons that escape me, I watched this in an English dub, which was not too bad. This outing takes place in 1959, and as with Ip Man 2, there is a notable anti-British bias. Ip Man remains the best of the series, but they are all worth seeing.

Here, Ip Man takes on Mike Tyson in a 3-minute round:

Not bad for a 52-year-old and a 49-year-old.

what i watched last week

Up (Pete Docter, 2009). I liked hearing the brain-to-mouth-with-no-middleman conversation of the dogs, and the movie was pleasant enough … deserves credit for not being too smarmy while offering up a Nice Lesson in Life. But the lessons were pretty much it … this isn’t a comedy with a lesson, it’s a drama with comic moments. And the drama wasn’t THAT good. Not bad, not classic.

The Last Emperor (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1987). How times have changed. When this movie came out in 1987, I was in my mid-30s and still able to insist on my holier-than-though attitude where I never left a movie while it was running, no matter the reason. My main memory of The Last Emperor is that it was very long, and I had to pee really bad, and finally, with not that long until the end, I had to give in and scurry to the bathroom. Now I own the Blu-ray, I just put it on pause when nature calls. I’m not exactly sure what Bertolucci is saying here. Does he really believe in Communist “re-education?” At one point, an interrogator looks at Pu Yi’s “confession” and says it’s nothing but a bunch of dates. Bertolucci plays around with flashbacks, but essentially, that’s all his movie is, a history lesson with dates, and an ode to passivity, which isn’t a particularly cinematic topic. The movie is gorgeous, as is Joan Chen, and it’s not boring, exactly. But like I say, I can’t tell what the point is.

red cliff 2 (john woo, 2009)

Red Cliff was probably my favorite movie of 2008 … only other possibility would be Man on Wire. It took us several months of maybe-perhaps-ok before we finally got around to watching Red Cliff 2, and it looks like John Woo is going to be sitting atop my list again this year. I didn’t say much about the first installment, so I’ll stretch out a bit now. I should note that I haven’t seen the version playing now in American theaters, which edits the two parts down into one movie.

There are two essential items going on here, the strategy preparing for battle, and the battle itself (as I recall, it was much the same in Part One). I’m not a fan of “war strategy” movies, but this stuff is fascinating. It takes place in the early 3rd century, so the weapons aren’t very advanced. But they are put to ingenious uses, and the overall strategies on both sides are interesting mostly because of the point/counterpoint feel. The leaders on both sides know how war is “supposed” to be fought, and there’s a bit of game theory going on, as first one side and then another attempts to figure out how the other will vary from the norm, so that they can themselves vary in a useful manner. The result would please the A-Team’s Hannibal … as you watch in admiration, you think “I love it when a plan comes together.” The final battle sequence is as good as any you’ve seen. The only problem is that we’re getting aesthetic pleasure from the deaths of tens of thousands of people, and while there are brief moments when we’re reminded of the deceased, for the most part our reaction is more “Wow!” than “poor fellow.” This was true in Woo’s HK action films, of course, but the scale here is far beyond that of a movie like Hard Boiled. Still, watching Woo put all the pieces together in such a way that the audience can clearly follow the action mirrors the way the warlords put the pieces of their plans together.

I don’t know enough about the history being told here to say anything with confidence about how close to reality Woo comes, but I don’t know that it matters. I also don’t know how the two films reflect on contemporary China … Woo made his name in Hong Kong, left before the handover, made a gazillion dollars in Hollywood, then returned home to make this remarkable epic that I’m sure says something about how things are today. But Red Cliff and Red Cliff 2 are magnificent, stirring films … they are as inventive as his earlier heroic bloodshed movies, on a much greater scale.