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]

25 favorite films

Recently, the They Shoot Pictures Don't They website had a poll where users listed their 25 favorite films. They received 1,983 replies, with a total of 5,945 films chosen. They have begun posting the top 1005, spreading things out to keep us in suspense. In the meantime, here were my 25 choices. Each selection received one point, so there was no need to rank them. I'll list mine in alphabetical order:

film fatales #114: honey boy (alma har'el, 2019)

Honey Boy is an uncomfortable movie, and I think that is only partly intended. The film purports to be an honest, autobiographical story about the childhood of Shia LaBeouf, who wrote the film and stars as "his father". "Purports" is unfair ... only LaBeouf knows how accurately Honey Boy represents his early life. He is unsparing in conveying the traumas of his childhood, and he gives the father a scary edge, although an essential humanity peeks through on occasion.

Still, part of the discomfort comes from the feeling that Honey Boy is just a public therapy session for LaBeouf. He's working things out on the screen. He wrote the script while in a ten-week rehab program, and it's good that he has this outlet to get inside his problems. But at times I felt like a voyeur.

Director Alma Har'el, in her first fictional feature, keeps things relatively clear. She is dealing with scenes in the past of young Otis (the stand-in for LaBeouf as a kid, played by Noah Jupe of the Quiet Place movies) and present-day scenes of a grown-up Otis (here played by Lucas Hedges) working his way through rehab. And the grown-up Otis has dreams that we see as fantasy scenes. It's not always coherent, but perhaps it shouldn't be.

The acting is the best thing about the movie. Obviously, there's LaBeouf as the father. Jupe as the 12-year-old Otis is excellent, letting us see the frightened boy inside, but also the kid with enough going on to work in movies supporting his dad. Laura San Giacomo underplays nicely as Otis' therapist in rehab. Natasha Lyonne is in the credits as "Mom", but we only hear her voice.

Honey Boy is not an easy film to watch, and your opinion of LaBeouf will enter into your response to the movie. I recommend it, hesitantly.

[Letterboxd list of Film Fatales movies]

revisiting the 9s: stories we tell (sarah polley, 2012)

[This is the second in a new series that will probably be VERY intermittent, if I remember to post at all. I've long known that while I have given my share of 10-out-of-10 ratings for movies over the years, in almost every case, those movies are fairly old. By rough count, I have only given the top rating to 16 non-documentaries from the 21st century. (For some reason, I don't have a problem giving tens to new documentaries.) So I got this idea to go back and revisit movies of relatively recent vintage that I gave a rating of 9, to see if time and perspective convinced me to bump that rating up to 10. Of course, it's always possible I'll drop the rating, but time will tell.]

The second movie in the series is Stories We Tell, which I last saw (and rated "9") in 2017. At that time, I wrote:

Sarah Polley is up to many things with Stories We Tell, which seems surprising if you just offer a brief description: Polley makes a documentary about her family, using interviews and home movies. Polley turns this seemingly simple exercise into a smart examination of memory, family, and the very act of making a documentary. She is so smooth with her craft that her ambitions never slow the film down, never seem pretentious.

(I notice that back in 2017, Stories We Tell was #185 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century. It is currently at #116, which shows how our impressions change over time.)

One way Polley avoids being pretentious is by sneaking her methods into the film. The first time I watched it, I missed Polley's "trick" entirely until the closing credits. It's such an audacious move that everyone who writes about Stories We Tell must apologize for the spoilers they are about to offer, arguing that you can't talk about the movie without talking about the spoilers. This is an example of how extraordinary the movie is, for it's hard to think of a documentary that needs spoiler warnings. It's not a spoiler to say that someone gets killed at Altamont during Gimme Shelter, and while the audience for Stories We Tell might not know specifics about the lives of Polley and her family, you could look at Wikipedia to find out "what happened". The spoiler is in how Polley tells the story. (And this is as good a place as any to mention Michael Munn, the film's editor, who is exemplary in his work here.)

This is crucial. As at least one person asks, why would anyone be interested in the story of our family? The people have led interesting lives, the way all of us lead interesting lives. But Polley doesn't really make us interested in her family as much as she makes us interested in her "smart examination of memory, family, and the very act of making a documentary". There is a meta theme here ... Polley makes a documentary that examines making a documentary. Where someone like Frederick Wiseman essentially hides what he is doing with his fly-on-the-wall documentaries, Polley draws attention to her methods. Which makes the one big secret to her film all the more surprising, because the movie seems transparent, but it wasn't, at least not completely. And Polley doesn't use her "trick" to draw attention to her brilliant film making, she uses it to further emphasize the theme of family memories.

In an interview with Kate Erbland in 2019, Polley admits she is surprised at how resonant Stories We Tell is for so many people. What feels like a smartly planned approach turns out to been have something less controlled:

The fact that anyone saw a cohesive film in there is still amazing to me.... For me, the legacy is that anyone thought it was an actual movie, as opposed to just a complete mess that I never cleaned up.... At no point did I feel like I knew what I was doing when I was making it. It just felt like such a mess, it felt really unpleasant.

Polley accomplishes so much with Stories We Tell that it ends up being a perfect candidate for "Revisiting the 9s". Although as noted, I have never shied away from giving my highest rating to recent documentaries, I held back a bit with Stories We Tell, probably because Polley's accomplishments felt "un-documentary" enough that I treated it like just another great art film. Which it is. It's also a great documentary. It's a great film. I should have given it a "10" from the start.

film fatales #113: shadow in the cloud (roseanne liang, 2020)

My friend Steve Fore, who has steered me to so many good movies in the past, tipped me off to this one, writing on Facebook:

Looking for a period war movie with horror elements that's wall-to-wall kineticism for 83 minutes? An homage to "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet," Bugs Bunny, and "Aliens" that transcends all three? That winningly draws on the go-for-broke non-logic and wild narrative implausibility of classic Hong Kong action movies? That has the heroine stuck in the belly turret of a B-17 for half the movie and makes that strategy both claustrophobic and thrillingly dynamic? ... [T]ry watching "Shadow in the Cloud."
Good call, Steve! Shadow in the Cloud is everything he said it was, with an emphasis on kinetic implausibility. This movie is loony from start to finish. Chloë Grace Moretz may seem implausible as the hero, but she makes her abilities seem real amidst all the logic-free plot. It's non-stop action that doesn't overstay its welcome ... Steve was right to mention it's only 83 minutes long. Director/co-writer Roseanne Liang was unknown to me. She's a Chinese New Zealander who delivers an unpretentious popcorn movie. I always have time for those.