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]

film fatales #122: fast color (julia hart, 2018)

Julia Hart has had an interesting beginning to her career. Fast Color was her second movie as writer/director, working with her husband Jordan Horowitz, a writer/producer. She was already in her mid-30s when she started. They released two more films in 2020, and they are supposedly working on turning Fast Color into a television series, which makes sense, since it plays a bit like a series pilot.

Fast Color is a superhero movie, although a very low-key one that can be approached as just a mysterious fantasy. It features three women (Ruth, her mother Boo, and her daughter Lila) who have special powers. The powers aren't really explained, and they are used mostly to demonstrate how the family of women are outsiders. It takes place in a near-future where climate change is running rampant. We gradually come to know the three characters and learn something of their powers (which differ from each other's), before and ending that sets up future stories (hence the feel of a TV pilot). It's a low-budget affair, and the special effects are more arty than they are action-packed, but that works well here, and when the "fast color" effects turn up near the end, they are impressive and emotional. (I was reminded of the final scenes of Gareth Edwards' Monsters, which were also moving.)

The film is helped immensely by the lead actors, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Lorraine Toussaint, and Saniyya Sidney, who plays Lila with a believable expertise that belies her age. David Strathairn, who seems to be in half the movies made in the last 40 years, is also good.

Fast Color isn't really a movie for fans of superheroes, although they might benefit from a viewing. And non-fans shouldn't be scared away by the premise. But in its own way, Fast Color really is about superheroes. The TV series should be engaging, if it ever happens.

[Letterboxd list of Film Fatales]

geezer cinema: film fatales #121: shiva baby (emma seligman, 2020)

Shiva Baby grew out of a short student film created by Emma Seligman and starring Rachel Sennott. At 78 minutes, it still feels a bit like a short, but it's so packed with eventful scenes you could imagine it running for another half an hour. The film takes place in a 24-hour period, most of which occurs at a shiva. Seligman and cinematographer Maria Rusche do a great job of simultaneously giving the feel of claustrophobia while still finding plenty of space for intimate conversations. People are regularly leaving one crowded room for a less-crowded room where they can talk things out.

The film is steeped in Jewish culture (ironically, Dianna Agron, who plays a shiksa princess, is Jewish, while Rachel Sennott, who plays the lead, Danielle, is not), but it feels universal, a coming of age story with well-meaning but intrusive family and plenty of "experimenting" for Danielle. At times, Seligman inches close to stereotype, but never dives completely in, in part because Danielle is at the center of everything that happens, and we get to know her as an actual person. The cast is good across the board, although for the most part I never figured out exactly who was who (as I say, close to stereotype). Polly Draper and Fred Melamed are on target as Danielle's parents, who want the best for their daughter but don't always know what "the best" might be. Molly Gordon is a standout as Maya, Danielle's ex-lover ... there's a bite to her personality, yet in some ways I found her the most likeable character in the film.

Shiva Baby is relentless in locking Danielle into uncomfortable situations. And there is a baby that cries pretty much every time it turns up on screen, eventually making the soundtrack feel a bit like a horror film. Which Shiva Baby is, in an odd sort of way. At least until what I found to be a semi-happy ending.

[Letterboxd list of Film Fatales]

[Letterboxd list of Geezer Cinema]

film fatales #120: the sit-in: harry belafonte hosts the tonight show (yoruba richen, 2020)

Several times during The Sit-In, we are reminded that the week when Harry Belafonte hosted The Tonight Show was largely buried in the history of television. Yoruba Richen, who directed and co-wrote the documentary, emphasizes this because she believes Belafonte's hosting stint was an important moment in television ... she wants to ensure that it is forgotten no longer. She succeeds ... The Sit-In will be there for anyone who wants to discover (or rediscover) the week that was. It's a noble, even necessary, endeavor.

And Richen does what she can with the existing material. But here she is let down, which is unfortunate for her audience. First, she explains that in the 1960s, networks like NBC regularly recorded over tapes, so that, in the case of Belafonte on The Tonight Show, only segments from two of his five episodes exist today. So a look at the guest lists for his episodes is impressive, but we only get a handful of those guests. The truncated list remains impressive ... The Sit-In features Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (who tells a joke!), Bobby Kennedy, Paul Newman, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Nipsey Russell, and others. But a lot of the brief (75 minutes) running time of The Sit-In consists of interviews with people who express surprise that these episodes existed at all. I'm always glad to hear from Questlove and Whoopi Goldberg, but their contributions to The Sit-In are extended beyond usefulness. Understandably, given the absence of much footage from the event, but it becomes a bit repetitious.

Richen does a good job of placing the episodes in the context of 1968, and ultimately, The Sit-In is a helpful, if incomplete, addition to our understanding of our history. It's not a classic, but you take what you can get.

film fatales #119: in a world (lake bell, 2013)

I've been looking forward to this for a long time, although since it came out eight years ago, I guess I wasn't too insistent on seeing it. In any event, I've seen it now, and it is quite an accomplishment for Lake Bell, who wrote it, starred in it, and directed it. Bell was 34 when she made In a World, her first feature as a director. Since then, she has directed/written/starred in one other feature, and done a lot of TV work. She is perhaps best known for a nude cover she did for New York magazine in 2013, and while it's obvious why she was chosen for that cover, Bell clearly has a lot more going for her than just the kind of body that gets the attention of readers of Maxim. I wanted to love In a World ... we need more female actors-turned-writer/director, and In a World was a critical and a festival success. So it's hardly fair to say it's good-not-great, but that's how it felt to me. Blame my expectations ... I wanted her first film in charge to be a stunner, when it turned out to be a fine film with subtle depth.

There are positives aplenty here. Bell gathers together an excellent cast of big names, "that guys", and should-be stars: Rob Corddry, Eva Longoria, Demetri Martin, Fred Melamed, Tig Notaro, Nick Offerman, Michaela Watkins, Geena Davis, Carly Chaikin, Jason O'Mara, Cameron Diaz, Jeff Garlin, and Bell herself. She has written several solid characters, if perhaps a few too many for a 93-minute movie. Everyone has more depth than you might first expect, which helps make the characters believable. The setting is unusual enough to feel original: woman tries to break into the world of movie-trailer voice overs. Everything is fairly casual, but there is a narrative thrust that moves things forward.

None of the above is particularly mind-blowing, and maybe that's why I was disappointed when there was no cause to feel let down. In a World should appeal to most moviegoers, and not every directorial debut needs to be Citizen Kane.

[Letterboxd list of Film Fatales]

what i watched

Film Fatales #118: Beau Travail (Claire Denis, 1999). My third Claire Denis film, after 35 Shots of Rum and White Material, and the third I've found quite impressive. Once again, she isn't worried about clarifying events. It's a character study, where the heat of Djibouti is a character of its own. It's said she drew on Melville's Billy Budd, and I can see that ... if nothing else, it's clear which character in Beau Travail is the Billy Budd stand-in. I was reminded a bit of Full Metal Jacket, in the way the men in the French Foreign Legion do mind-numbing physical tasks to prepare them for a war. One difference between the two films (besides the part where Beau Travail is far superior) is that Denis never takes us to the actual war, the way Kubrick does in the second half of his film. The absence of any actual fighting makes the endless preparations of the Legionnaires almost abstract. Because Denis doesn't force a narrative down our throats, the eventual fate of the main characters seems a bit abrupt. But overall, the film carries a power that belies the seemingly calm surface. The buried homoerotic subtext in itself is overwhelming at times. #115 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time, and #93 on the recently released TSPDT poll of its users.

Geezer Cinema: Awake (Mark Raso, 2021). Never call a movie "Awake" unless you are sure you will give audiences plenty to keep them from getting sleepy. Awake has an intriguing, if silly, premise: everyone on Earth is unable to fall asleep (I've already forgotten the "explanation" for this), except for a couple of people, one of which is a young girl played by Ariana Greenblatt, who was young Gamora in Avengers: Infinity War. This is not a big-name cast. Gina Rodriguez stars, Jennifer Jason Leigh is only in a couple of scenes and she is mostly wasted, and there are a handful of "that guys" like Barry Pepper, Gil Bellows, and Shamier Anderson. Oh, and Frances Fisher, whose part is barely larger than Leigh's. It's not much of a movie. In fairness, I didn't fall asleep while watching it. But then, I had some caffeine before it started.

[Letterboxd lists for Film Fatales and Geezer Cinema]

film fatales #117: sword of trust (lynn shelton, 2019)

I hadn't seen any films directed by Lynn Shelton, although I've enjoyed her work on TV series like Mad Men, Master of None, Shameless, Casual, and GLOW. She has a solid connection with her actors, which is very useful in a film that is apparently largely improvised (the listed writers are Shelton and Michael Patrick O'Brien). It's not entirely surprising that this cast works well with improvisation, as most of them have roots in that style. In fact, the cast is so good that it's not easy to guess that the dialogue is improvised.

Beyond that, actors like Marc Maron and Michaela Watkins are excellent, and I'm always happy to see Toby Huss. Others, like Jon Bass and Jillian Bell, are also good, although I wasn't sure I had seen any of their work (turns out I have, but apparently they didn't make a big impression on me).

I wanted to like Sword of Trust ... it's Shelton's last film, as she died in 2020, and I'm a fan of Maron, who was in a relationship with Shelton at the end and who has spoken movingly of her. But the best I can say is that I didn't dislike it. There's a shaggy-dog feel to the plot, and the film relies a lot on the individual scenes, which I didn't always connect with. There is something timely about the way Sword of Trust shows us conspiracy theorists (did you know the South won the Civil War?). I never quit rooting for the movie, and its short running time meant it was over before I lost interest. Everyone does good work, but overall, I wanted a little more.

[Letterboxd list of Film Fatales movies]

25 favorite films update

About a month ago, I took part in a poll at the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They website where users listed their 25 favorite films. They received 1,983 replies, with a total of 5,945 films chosen. The final results of that poll have been posted. I find things like this endlessly fascinating. If you are like me, you'll want to check out the site, where you can see lists like "Ten Highest Ranked Films in the 1,000 Greatest Films List That Are Not in the 1,005 Film Favourites List", "Ten Lowest Ranked 21st Century Films in the 21st Century’s Most Acclaimed Films List That Are in the 1,005 Film Favourites List", and "Leading 25 Directors (Total Votes)". I may delve into this further in a later post, but for now, here again are the 25 films I chose, listed by their ranking on the final list. First, films that did not make the Top 1005:

Black Panther (Coogler, who does not appear on the list)

Near Dark (Bigelow, who does not appear on the list)

The Rapture (Tolkin, who does not appear on the list)

The Sorrow and the Pity (Ophuls, who does not appear on the list)

Stories We Tell (Polley, who does not appear on the list)

Winter's Bone (Granik, who does not appear on the list)

Steamboat Bill, Jr. (Keaton, who did get 2 other films on the list)

The Beaches of Agnes (Varda, who did get 4 other films on the list)

And my choices that made the list, in reverse order:

Performance (Cammell and Roeg, tied at #923)

Bonnie and Clyde (Penn, tied at #570)

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (Ramsey et al, tied at #519)

Get Out (Peele, tied at #442)

The Wild Bunch (Peckinpah, tied at #247)

A Separation (Farhadi, tied at #196)

Rio Bravo (Hawks, tied at #135)

The Rules of the Game (Renoir, tied at #71)

Mad Max: Fury Road (Miller, #60)

Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce 1080 Bruxelles (Akerman, #57)

The Third Man (Reed, tied at #46)

Do the Right Thing (Lee, #29)

The Godfather Part II (Coppola, #21)

Tokyo Story (Ozu, #20)

The Passion of Joan of Arc (Dreyer, #19)

Citizen Kane (Welles, #9)

In the Mood for Love (Wong Kar-wai, #8)

Finally, here is the Top Ten list:

  1. 2001: A Space Odyssey (Kubrick)
  2. Mulholland Dr. (Lynch)
  3. Vertigo (Hitchcock)
  4. Apocalypse Now (Coppola)
  5. The Godfather (Coppola)
  6. Taxi Driver (Scorsese)
  7. Persona (Bergman)
  8. In the Mood for Love
  9. Citizen Kane
  10. Seven Samurai (Kurosawa)

geezer cinema/film fatales #116: black widow (cate shortland, 2021)

I have now seen 15 movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. My response to those films is so predictable that I wonder if I'm human or just a cyborg who likes movies. I have given 12 of those movies a rating of 7/10. (Black Panther is a 9/10, and I didn't care for the Guardians of the Galaxy movies.) This is thrown off a bit because my favorite Marvel properties of the last couple of decades include the TV series Agent Carter and Agents of Shield, and I loved Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, and apparently none of them are part of the MCU.

Black Widow was just as good as the other Marvel movies. I liked it partly because it was very un-superheroish. It was more like an action/spy movie, with car chases instead of battles between Iron Man and Thor or whatever. Scarlett Johansson was great, as usual, and Florence Pugh was good, as well, which made me glad, because we watched her in a movie last month that stunk (Midsommar), although she was the best thing about that one. It was clearly time for Natasha Romanoff to get her own movie ... well past time, given that even Ant-Man has already gotten two features. With the possible exception of Robert Downey, Jr., Scarlett Johansson is the biggest star in the Marvel universe, but as often as not she's treated as eye candy more than anything else. So just the fact that she and Florence Pugh are at the center of Black Widow is progress, much as Brie Larson's box-office bonanza performance in Captain Marvel mattered beyond the billion-dollar-plus box office for that movie.

None of this would matter if the movies were bad, but, as noted, both of those films are as good as their Marvel counterparts. Johansson has two Oscar nominations, Pugh has one, and Larson actually won an Oscar ... these are accomplished actors. But they are also believable in the ass-kicking mode required of them in the Marvel films.

The plot isn't as important as the back story of Natasha and her sister ... something about an evil villain trying to take over the world ... like I say, Black Widow would fit into the James Bond universe as easily as it does the MCU. Johansson and Pugh make their story worth our attention.

One note about the special effects. We saw the movie in IMAX, partly because there are 22 minutes in the film designed specifically for that format. It was impressive, but I was working at a disadvantage: I'd had surgery for a detached retina only two weeks earlier, and so I was watching with only one good eye. Honestly, I think the giant IMAX screen helped, but it will be fun to see Black Widow again sometime when both of my eyes work.

[Letterboxd lists: Geezer Cinema, Film Fatales, Marvel Cinematic Universe]

geezer cinema/film fatales #115: saint maud (rose glass, 2019)

On Tuesday, July 9, 2019, my recently-retired wife and I (who had been retired for a long while) decided to take in a weekly movie. We had the time, we could stand to leave the house, and we were "seniors" who get bargains at movie theaters. We chose Tuesday because we know many theaters have bargains on that day, not realizing the price for seniors is pretty much the same every day. We take turns choosing the movie, and my wife went first, which is why on that long-ago Tuesday, we saw John Wick 3. We chose the name "Geezer Cinema" for our weekly outings.

Writing about that first geezer, I said, "Who knows how long it will last". Well, I often say if you do something once, it's an event, but if you do it twice, it's a tradition. On the next Tuesday, I chose Booksmart, and a tradition was begun. In early March of last year, we saw Emma., which turned out to be our last trip to a theater for a long time. It seemed the pandemic would put an end to Geezer Cinema, but nope ... the next week, my wife chose to re-watch Contagion, for obvious reasons, and Geezer Cinema continued in its new, stay-at-home mode. We returned to the theater a few weeks ago to watch A Quiet Place Part II, and while we haven't been back to the theater since, it's only a matter of time.

Saint Maud marks the 100th film in the Geezer Cinema saga. I chose it because ... oh, who knows why I pick movies, it was a critical favorite (Metascore: 83), and was directed by Rose Glass, making her feature debut. No less an expert than Bong Joon Ho chose Glass as one of the "upcoming directors for the 2020s". The only cast member I recognized was Jennifer Ehle (her second Geezer appearance ... she was also in Contagion). I hoped for the best, even though my previous Geezer pick, Midsommar (also directed by one of Bong's up-and-comers), wasn't to my liking.

So, shut up and tell us about Saint Maud. It stars Morfydd Clark, who has only been in feature films since 2014, as the titular character, a private care nurse who has recently become a hardcore Roman Catholic. Glass, who also wrote the film, does an excellent job taking Saint Maud from horror to religious movie and back again ... sometimes they stand alone, sometimes they blend together, but Glass has a firm hand throughout. We are never confused in an arbitrary manner. At times, we experience the confusion of Maud, or the confusion of those around her, but we always know where we are.

Clark is a wonder. She looks like a bland young lady, but she lets us see the fanatic behind the mask, a fanatic that over the course of the film emerges for us to see more clearly. For a while, it seems like Glass is giving us a religious take on Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, but that goes away as we realize what we are watching is the existential traumas of one individual. Ultimately, Saint Maud is less a horror story, or even a religious movie, than it is a character study of a lonely woman whose need to communicate with God leads down a dark path. Oddly, it's almost like Taxi Driver, or rather, Maud is like Travis Bickle. Already #725 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century.

[Letterboxd list of Geezer Cinema movies]