geezer cinema/film fatales #181: bottoms (emma seligman, 2023)

Emma Seligman and Rachel Sennott are building a base for the kind of teamwork we associate with greats like Scorsese and DeNiro. OK, that's a stretch and I know it, but writer/director Seligman and writer/actor Sennott go back to their days at NYU (where they also met Ayo Edebiri, Sennott's co-star in Bottoms), and the two made a short, Shiva Baby, that became Seligman's first feature. One imagines the three women helping to create a work together that benefits from their very real camaraderie.

The setup for Bottoms makes perfect sense ... before it was made, there was nothing quite like it, but now it's only surprising that it took this long. There are antecedents  ... it's not like there have never been gross-out comedies about teens. But putting a queer focus at the center of the film gives a new feel, and makes those antecedents seem a bit passΓ©. And Bottoms is unafraid to "go there" ... the IMDB Parents Guide notes the level of "surprisingly bloody violence throughout the movie, although all of it is played for laughs", and it would seem that Bottoms is one of the rare movies that earns its "R" rating more for violence than for sex. The key is that it is indeed "played for laughs". The best comparison for me is to Heathers, although that film tried harder to make its subtext into text. (Wynona Ryder in Heathers saying the memorable line "my teen-angst bullshit now has a body count" could be true for Bottoms as well if Seligman and co. weren't having too much fun making it happen). Both films offer a version of high school that is recognizable but exaggerated to great effect.

The fine work by the three women is expected at this point, but the performances of the rest of the cast bring some newer faces to the front. There's Ruby Cruz, daughter of former child star Brandon Cruz, in her feature debut, and model Kaia Gerber (daughter of Cindy Crawford), and Havana Rose Liu, and especially Marshawn Lynch, known as Beast Mode in his years in the NFL, who somehow fits right in (this list could be much longer).

Bottoms isn't perfect. It's all over the place, and not everything hits the target. But you're having too much fun as you are watching to worry about such things.

african-american directors series/film fatales #180: nanny (nikyatu jusu, 2022)

This is the first film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2023-24", "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 9th annual challenge, and my fifth time participating (previous years can be found at "2019-20", "2020-21", "2021-22", and "2022-23"). Week 1 is called "99 Minutes Week":

This year marks the Letterboxd Season Challenge's ninth yearβ€”it's the challenge with nine lives! And what better way to celebrate than abandoning last year's Long Time Running theme week (3+ hour films, if you've forgotten) and embracing the Goldilocks of movie lengths: 90 minutes. But to be clever, we've added an extra nine minutes for LSC9. 99! That's two nines! (What's that cricket sound?) Anyway, we've gone the whole nine yards and painstakingly compiled a prodigious list of movies, each of them exactly ninety-nine minutes long, and dressed them to the nines, all beautifully arranged just so.

This week's challenge is to join us on cloud nine and watch a film from π–˜π–Šπ–™π–π–Šπ–“π–˜π–™π–Šπ–Žπ–“'s 99 minutes ⏲️ No more, no less list.

The Letterboxd Season Challenge is supposed to be fun, and sometimes the category of the week emphasizes this. Previous first-week challenges have included topics like "watch the most popular film you haven't seen", "watch a previously unseen film about gambling", and "Central American Independence Week". This year's opener is a bit silly in its exactness: watch a movie that is 99 minutes long. The possibilities are far from limited ... the π–˜π–Šπ–™π–π–Šπ–“π–˜π–™π–Šπ–Žπ–“ list from which we choose has 578 films on it.  I chose Nanny because ... well, it becomes clear soon enough that I quickly forget why I picked a particular movie for the Challenge (I chose all 33 movies more than a week ago). Nanny has a lot going for it ... writer/director Nikyatu Jusu was only the second Black woman director to win the Sundance Grand Jury Prize, all the more impressive because Nanny is her first feature.

Jusu shows great promise, especially in the atmospherics she provides here. Nanny is often unsettling, but at the right times and for the right reasons. It also covers a lot of ground ... it's a story about the lives of immigrants to the U.S., it offers a picture of the clueless assumption of privilege by the white American upper-middle class, and it gives us a powerful performance by Anna Diop in the title role. It's nice to see Leslie Uggams turn up. It's easy to recommend Nanny.

Yet it falls short, I think. It isn't clear from the start, but Nanny is a horror movie. The idea that the life of an immigrant might seem like a horror movie is well taken, but the otherworldly components of the film don't fit smoothly, and the opening up of Nanny into the realm of horror is too gradual ... at first it's hard to even recognize, and then it feels like two movies. It's far from a failure, and when I said it's an unsettling movie, I meant that as a compliment. But it's more a fine welcome to Nikyatu Jusu to the world of movies than it is a welcome to a new classic.

geezer cinema/african-american directors series/film fatales #179: selma (ava duvernay, 2014)

Selma isn't exactly a biopic, which is made evident by the title, which is not King. It's a representation of a historical moment, with many famous participants, of whom Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. sits at the top. But King is shown as a leader amongst equals.

DuVernay effectively tells the story of the Selma to Montgomery march, without moving too far from the actual events. The drama doesn't need much tarting up ... it remains both shocking and inspiring. David Oyelowo makes a memorable King (he is one of several actors from England in key parts ... you don't notice it). Some have questioned the representation of the relationship between King and Lyndon Johnson. I don't think it's a huge flaw, but at times it feels like DuVernay is using LBJ as a plot device to add tension. The film rights to King's actual speeches had already been licensed, so DuVernay wrote versions of those speeches. It works for the most part, although when King is giving a speech you might know by heart, it's a bit jarring.

Selma was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar (it also won Best Song). I've seen all but one of the nominees, and I think Selma is better than the winner, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance). I might have voted for Boyhood, but Selma definitely belonged in the discussion. The absence of DuVernay in the nominations for Best Director and Best Screenplay, along with David Oyelowo being ignored for Best Actor, pointed to the lack of diversity among the Academy voters.

Selma is solid, raised by some fine acting and a good script. I'm sorry it took me this long to finally see it. #590 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century.

film fatales #178: queen of katwe (mira nair, 2016)

Diversity in representation matters. Queen of Katwe is a pretty standard based-on-a-true-story underdog sports story, except the sport is chess. But it's different because the underdog, Phiona Mutesi, is a young girl prodigy from a Ugandan slum. You've seen movies like this before, but probably not with someone like Phiona at the center.

Mira Nair does a beautiful job of presenting the slum as a place not only of distress, but as a place people live. Nair doesn't prettify things, and a key part of the narrative is the attempts to get Phiona to rise out of the slums. But Nair gives the town's inhabitants their dignity.

Like all underdog sports stories, everything leads to the big final match. There's a formula to this, for a reason: it works. While you are watching Queen of Katwe, you are caught up in Phiona's story, you look forward to that final match. But Nair doesn't rise above the formula. The difference is in the setting and in the characters, but those differences are plugged into a tale that takes few chances. The film never reaches beyond the basics.

David Oyelowo and Lupita Nyong'o add luster to the cast, and are excellent, but the real find is newcomer Madina Nalwanga as Phiona. You can't help rooting for her.

geezer cinema/film fatales #177: barbie (greta gerwig, 2023)

You probably know people like a friend of mine, of my generation (boomer), who refuses to see Barbie. She said she had "too much baggage" around Barbie, and mentioned that the trailer made her hyperventilate. I don't have her memories, and maybe that helps. I've been looking forward to Barbie since I first learned of its existence, because Greta Gerwig has directed two other movies, Lady Bird and Little Women, and both were quite good. I have no problem putting myself in Gerwig's hands.

There are a lot of people to thank for how good Barbie is. There's Gerwig's co-writer, Noah Baumbach, there's cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, there are all the people involved in the design of the film. You wouldn't call Barbie a blockbuster, although it is performing like one at the box office. But Gerwig and company manage to put a lot of stuff into two hours ... this isn't a "small" movie like, say, Lady Bird. (Gerwig's budgets have gone from $10 million for Lady Bird to more than $100 million for Barbie.) Gerwig has "adapted" well to her larger budgets, plus her films feel increasingly confident. I wouldn't argue that each is better than the last ... they are all equally good. But she certainly hasn't fallen.

Barbie is ripe for analysis, of course, and there is some difference of opinion about the final product. Gerwig does well to question the place of the Barbie tradition in the lives of the girls who have grown up in the time of that tradition, but she is also making a movie about a doll that is backed by the company that makes the doll. We're not talking revolution here, just a gentle nudge towards a female-centric perspective that offers a happy kind of feminism without ruffling too many feathers (right-wing pundits not withstanding). It's interesting to try and ascertain what Gerwig intended for her film ... she's certainly been available for interviews and promotions, it's not hard to find her hopes for the movie. I think Barbie is the movie Greta Gerwig wanted to make.

But not everyone is happy about Gerwig's vision here. Barbie is a pretty white movie (all of the pink colors don't hide this fact), even though we get America Ferrera and Ariana Greenblatt as a Latinx family, and Simu Liu as an Asian Ken, and Issa Rae as an African-American Barbie who is President of Barbieland. This may be unavoidable ... Barbie is white, after all ... but like everything else in the movie, Gerwig puts diversity out there without emphasizing it, so the audience might forget that there are other Barbies and Kens besides Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling.

Kathy Fennessy offers a dissenting view of the movie and Gerwig's career that I admit doesn't connect with me. In "On Greta Gerwig's Barbie: A Tale in Four Parts", Fennessy begins, "Greta Gerwig has been trying to sell out, as it were, for over a decade now." Her argument is that even when Gerwig was an indie-mumblecore icon, she was already looking ahead to the mainstream. She describes the progression of Gerwig's career from her indie roots to Barbie as inevitable and intended ... and as far as I know, Fennessy is not wrong. And she is on target when she writes, "subversion isn't the same as self-awareness. Barbie is one, but it isn't the other. Gerwig and co-writer Baumbach poke gentle fun at Mattel, but by her own admission, they had to run everything by the studio brass.... I appreciate the way the couple pokes the bear, but I wouldn't say they drew blood, and nor would I have expected them to get away with it if they tried."

But in an odd way, Fennessy seems critical of Gerwig's career, even as she also seems to praise it. "With Gerwig, there was always the sense that independent cinema meant a great deal to her, and so fans have felt disappointed by what seems like an about-face, even if it really isn't. Gerwig worked hard, she paid her dues, she repeatedly tried to sell out, and she kept trying until she succeeded." Fennessy isn't saying Barbie represents a sell-out for Gerwig, she's saying Gerwig was always a sell-out, she just had to wade through a career before she got the chance to finally do what she always wanted.

Honestly, I find Fennessy's essay astute, even as I contest what I see as a major point: that it matters one way or the other if Barbie/Gerwig is a "sell-out". It's not a revolutionary movie, but I don't think that was ever the intention.

film fatales #176: atlantics (mati diop, 2019)

In Atlantics, Mati Diop relies on several genres that don't immediately seem to fit together. It begins with a love story of young people in modern Senegal, places those people within the specific problems of Senegal, deals with family disagreements, and then turns into something all together different. It's not seamless, but I don't think that is Diop's intention. She goes with what she thinks works, and leaves the audience to follow her instinctively. I admit to being confused at times, but I was always intrigued, and by the end of the movie, everything fit together.

Atlantics is the debut feature from Diop, who had directed shorts and had also acted (35 Shots of Rum). Her command of the interplay between genres is excellent ... perhaps even more impressive is the performances she gets from her cast, some of whom were appearing in their first movies. This is especially true of the lead, Mame Bineta Sane, who had never acted in anything before (and I can't find anything she's been in since). She is the center of the film, and she's wonderful, complex, photogenic ... I'd say this was a star-making performance except she doesn't seem to have done any work in films since.

I'm being a bit vague on how the narrative turns. It's best if you come to the movie cold, as I did. That contributes to some of the confusion, but it's worth the surprises it entail. #116 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century (#917 on the All-Time list).

film fatales #175: a league of their own (penny marshall, 1992)

The IMDB calls A League of Their Own "The highest-grossing baseball movie." Not sure if this is true, but I can believe it. I imagine baseball movies is a niche genre, so if you can expand that niche, as A League of Their Own does with its feminist undercurrents, you might gross more at the box office than, say, Major League. I remember enjoying A League of Their Own when it came out, and revisiting it more than 30 years later, it retains its enjoyable nature.

Is it a classic? Maybe a classic baseball movie, but I don't know that I'd go further than that. There are some fun performances ... Madonna was never better in a movie, and I always like Lori Petty, while Geena Davis is iconic and Tom Hanks is ... well, he does get to say "There's no crying in baseball" and that's one of the most memorable quotes in movie history. The recreation of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League is important, even necessary.

But there is nothing revolutionary about the approach of director Penny Marshall or writers Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel. It's just Yet Another Sports Movie where our heroines rise above the barriers placed in front of them, leading to an inspiring and tear-jerking finish. It matters that the barriers in this case are historic and that the stars are women. But the revolution ends there, which limits the film to something more enjoyable than great. Of course, there's nothing wrong with enjoyable ... there's a reason for its continued popularity.

what i watched

The Bad News Bears (Michael Ritchie, 1976). Mildly entertaining movie about youth baseball and a beer-swigging, cigar-smoking coach. I wonder if I would have liked it more if I'd seen it in 1976. I'm guessing that back then, there was something refreshing about a bunch of foul-mouthed youngsters and their alcoholic mentor. In 2023, I felt like I've seen plenty of movies about characters like this. And the general plot (sports movie about underdogs who rise against the odds) isn't exactly unique. It's nice that Michael Ritchie mostly ignores the potential to make everyone learn to be better people. Sure, many of the kids are a little more confident at the end of the movie, but it's not overdone, and Walter Matthau's coach is still drinking beer and smoking stogies at the end of the movie. All of this makes The Bad News Bears a little better than the norm, but I'm surprised this movie led to two sequels, a remake, and a television series. And I cringed that the coach taught the curve ball to Tatum O'Neal's young pitcher. At least by the end of the movie, her arm was too sore to pitch.

Geezer Cinema/Film Fatales #174: Joy Ride (Adele Lim, 2023). An unexpected, raunchy delight from first-time director Adele Lim. Perhaps in 50 years this will seem as passe as The Bad News Bears does now, but in the meantime, it's a joy ride indeed watching the four leads break stereotypes, have lots of sex and fun, and discover something about identity in the process. Kelly Pau wrote an excellent piece about the film's "full-frontal subversion of sexuality for Asian women", concluding, "In an age where representation can easily become a tokenized marketing buzzword, 'Joy Ride' offers a more nuanced portrayal that upends the hypersexualization of Asian women characters. It's testament to how representation is not just a matter of putting people of color onscreen but also behind the camera, in positions of power and in the writers' room." It's often hilarious, and a real crowd-pleaser, if the audience at our showing is any indicator.

african-american directors series/film fatales #173: reggie (alex stapleton, 2023)

Alex Stapleton pulls off an interesting trick with the documentary Reggie, about the baseball great. On the surface, it seems like a warts-and-all presentation. Reggie says on several occasions that his desire to tell the truth often gets him in trouble, and we are reminded of his conflicts with manager Billy Martin and owners Charlie Finley and George Steinbrenner. But the warts are understandable in the context of the film, which is largely told from Reggie's own point of view. Yes, he had problems with those people, but it was because he told the truth and demanded that he be treated with respect and dignity.

Reggie comes across well throughout the film. He has a lot of important things to say about racism and baseball, and the stories of the experiences he had in the south playing in the minor leagues reminded us of how bad it was back then. (His struggles to be part of ownership reminds us that we still have a long way to go.) It's fun to see him hanging out with his old Oakland teammates, including the late Vida Blue ... he and Dave Stewart exchange memories about when Stew was a youngster growing up in Oakland and Reggie took him under his wing. It's also illuminating to see him talking with fellow legends like Hank Aaron and basketball's Dr. J, sharing as only people who have reached the pinnacle of success can do.

I felt like Reggie would be happy with how the movie turned out.  If someone without a lot of knowledge about Reggie watched this, they'd think he was an OK guy as well as a great baseball player. There's nothing wrong with that. But I felt, without really knowing what they might be, that I was missing other aspects of Reggie as a person and a ballplayer.

geezer cinema/film fatales #172: past lives (celine song, 2023)

Past Lives is a debut feature from Celine Song that belies its newcomer status. Song is a playwright, and Past Lives unfurls in a carefully constructed manner that always feels real. There are no missteps in the film.

Song worked closely with her primary actors to get believable performances from them. Greta Lee (Russian Doll) is the Song stand-in as a playwright, Nora, who was born in Korea, Teo Yoo is the Korean man, Hae Sung, who was her childhood friend, and John Magaro is her husband, Arthur. Song and the actors do great things with their use of language. Nora is bilingual, and her Korean reflects the fact that she spoke it until she was 12 but has become rusty over the years. Teo Yeo speaks fluent English in real life, but here, he struggles to get even brief amenities across, while Arthur knows about as much Korean as the Hae Sung knows English. When the three of them are together, the woman is the translator/conduit for the communication.

Past Lives has three sections, one from the Korean childhood, one twelve years later (when Lee takes over the role of Nora), and a third twelve years after that, when the three meet in New York City. The film (and its title) grows out of the Korean concept of In-Yun, that assumes if you meet someone, you have also met in past lives. In fact, when Hae Sung comes to New York, he is a part of Nora's past ... he knows things about her that Arthur will never know. Again, Song is very careful ... nothing about the relationships of the three people is completely predictable, but the ending feels like it had been obvious all along.

Comparisons have been made to Richard Linklater's Before trilogy, where seven years passes between each film in the series. Song fits all 24 years into one film, but the seemingly-casual presentation is reminiscent of Linklater. The films are more different than similar, though, because the main characters in the works are unique.

Past Lives is a good movie that improves once you think back on it.