geezer cinema/film fatales #61: hustlers (lorene scafaria, 2019)

I have to admit, I was hoping for more. Hustlers is perfectly acceptable, but I thought it would be really good, based on the reviews. Jennifer Lopez is fine ... like the movie, there's nothing wrong with her performance, but I was expecting something Oscar-worthy, and I didn't see it. (She's not even the main actress ... she's got a shot at Best Supporting Actress, but Constance Wu is the lead.) She has a star power the rest of the actors lack ... when she makes her first appearance at the strip club, wearing a thong, and men start throwing money at her, it's believable, and there is more to her in Hustlers than her ass. But again, not earthshaking.

I thought I would be watching a movie about women's friendships with each other, and it's there, but it's more toxic than I expected. They take care of each other when things are good, and when the financial crisis hits, they band together to support each other. Banding together means getting back at men, and the men deserve it, but there's less of a revenge angle than you might think. I don't know, it all felt a bit by the numbers.

Looking at the above, I see that I wanted one kind of movie and I got another. Ultimately, that's on me. Hustlers is OK, and you might think it is better than OK. I was disappointed, though. Shout out to Cardi B, who made the most of her brief appearances ... I wanted to see more from her.

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)


film fatales #60: craig's wife (dorothy arzner, 1936)

This is the first film I have watched in a new challenge, "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." The challenge doesn't start until September 8, but I jumped ahead because Craig's Wife is leaving the Criterion Channel at the end of this month. Craig's Wife is from Week 5, "watch a previously unseen film adapted from or based on a stage play."

This is the first Dorothy Arzner film I have seen, so I can't speak to any career-long traits to her directing. While her treatment of Harriet, "Craig's wife", led me to find Harriet unlikable, George Kelly, who wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning play on which the film is based, apparently disagreed. As Molly Haskell relates,

Kelly was apparently horrified at Arzner's interpretation.

"I imagined Mr Craig was dominated somewhat by his mother and therefore fell in love with a woman stronger than he," [Arzner] said in the same interview. "I thought Mr Craig should be down on his knees with gratitude because Mrs Craig made a man of him. When I told Kelly this, he rose to his six-foot height, and said, 'That is not my play. Walter Craig was a sweet guy and Mrs Craig was an SOB.' He left. That was the only contact I had with Kelly."

Harriet is the tragic figure in Craig's Wife ... I just can't tell how sorry we are supposed to feel for her. I wanted her to get her comeuppance, but between Arzner's presentation and the acting of Rosalind Russell, I also felt sympathy for her. Harriet was striving for the only thing she felt was available to her as a woman of her time: security, which is represented by her home (the film could have been called "Craig's Wife's Home"), which she gets by marrying a man with money. She doesn't let her husband or anyone else get in the way of her home/security, which eventually leaves her alone in that home. It served her right and I felt bad for her anyway.

This was Russell's first top billing. I've never thought of myself as a big fan, but she co-stars in one of my favorite movies, His Girl Friday, and it may just be that I haven't seen enough of the movies she made earlier in her career. Billie Burke pops up, and for people of my generation, just hearing her voice brings memories of Glinda the Good Witch.

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)


geezer cinema/film fatales #59: blinded by the light (gurinder chadha, 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, although I was really just making good on a plan we hatched with a friend back when Blinded by the Light was first announced, that we would go see it ASAP.

On seeing the film, Springsteen reportedly said, "I don't want you to change a thing. It's perfect." Which reminded me of an anecdote Pauline Kael told about the 1940s musical Night and Day, a biopic about Cole Porter.

"William Bowers, one of the three scenarists, said later that he was so ashamed of this picture that about a year after it came out he called Cole Porter, whose biography it purported to be, and told him how sorry he was, and Porter said, "Love it. Just loved it. Oh, I thought it was marvelous." Bowers says that he told Oscar Hammerstein how puzzled he was by this, and Hammerstein said, "How many of his songs did you have in it?" Bowers answered "Twenty-seven," and Hammerstein said, "Well of course he loved it. They only turned out to be twenty-seven of the greatest songs of all time. You don't think he heard that stuff that went on between his songs, do you?"

It's hard to imagine a subject for a film that would be more appealing to me than the story of a person transformed by a love of Bruce Springsteen. Oh, I had read enough advance reviews to know that Blinded by the Light would probably be kinda sappy, which isn't my favorite thing, but c'mon, it's Bruce! It has lots of his songs! He liked the movie!

And there was even an added attraction I had somehow missed: among the cast is Hayley Atwell!

It started out OK, although it takes awhile to get to Bruce. We learn about the hardships of growing up Pakistani in the England of Maggie Thatcher. We learn about how Luton appears to Javed (Viveik Kalra), a teenage resident (it sucks). We learn about the struggles of Javed and his hard-nosed father. It's a good setup for the scene where Javed is introduced to the music of Bruce Springsteen. Most people tell him he can't relate to Bruce, a white American who sings about girls and cars. But the setup makes it all obvious ... it's not just that Bruce is universal, it's that he speaks to Javed in ways that are quite on target.

It's when Javed's life is changed by Bruce that the film goes downhill. Granted, this is a good example of Your Mileage May Vary, because most of what I didn't like about the movie related to the style of the film. It's almost as if Chadha and writer Sarfraz Manzoor took this Made for Steven concept and used every trick in the Steven Hates This book.

I like that Bruce's songs inspire Javed, and the movie does a good job of showing that. But for some reason, it didn't occur to me that at times, Blinded by the Light would turn into the kind of musical I hate. It's one thing for Bruce's music to play while Kalra's face shows us the connection, and I even liked the way the lyrics sometimes turned up on the screen. But I really didn't need characters inserting Bruce lyrics into their conversations. It was enough to hear the music and see the actors working with the concept. It was over the top when those characters said things like "tramps like us, baby we were born to run".

Some of the joy Bruce brings to Javed is contagious, and effectively presented. But I didn't need to see "Born to Run" turned into a song-and-dance for Javed and his friends.

So figure it's just me and my taste preferences, and go see Blinded by the Light for yourself, because you'll probably think it's harmless fun. I'd watch a movie with nothing but Bruce Springsteen singing songs. But the last thing I want to see is a musical with other people singing his songs.

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)


top three of each year

I've been spending a little time at the Letterboxd website ... this is what happens when you're retired, I guess. A couple of fellows from Germany uploaded a list of their top three films of each year, and I got inspired enough to create my own list. It starts in 1924 and goes through 2018. Two years (1926 and 1929) only got two movies, so the entire list is comprised of 283 movies. The thing that interested me the most was the recent films, because when I make Top 50 lists or whatever, I always end up with lots of old movies and not enough new ones. By forcing myself to pick three from each year, I was able to give recent years some space. So, to take a couple of years at random, from 2018, Black Panther, Roma, and Springsteen on Broadway made the list, while 2005 offered A History of Violence, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, and Dave Chappelle's Block Party. Top three from 1924? Sherlock, Jr., Greed, and The Navigator (lots of Buster Keaton in the silent years).

You can check out the list here:

Top 3 of each year, 1924-2018


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.)


political films

Another list. This time, we were asked to name our favorite political films, leaving us to define "political". There was a complicated point system that allowed for different numbers of movies in a response. In my case, I voted for ten movies, with points totaling 100 and no film getting more than 30 points. Here is my ballot, with points and a link to my reviews:

The Sorrow and the Pity 30 points
The Rules of the Game 20
The Passion of Joan of Arc 15
4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days 14
The Lives of Others 13
The Battle of Chile (Parts 1 & 2) 3
Harlan County, USA 2
The Leopard 1
The Battle of Algiers 1
Wild in the Streets 1 (Oddly, I've never written about this movie, although I assigned it once in a class)

Here are the top ten in the final poll, with links when relevant:

  1. The Manchurian Candidate (1962)
  2. Dr. Strangelove (1964)
  3. Election (1999)
  4. The Battle of Algiers (1966)
  5. Nashville (1975)
  6. All the President’s Men (1976)
  7. Paths of Glory (1957)
  8. The Rules of the Game (1939)
  9. 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days (2007)
  10. Do the Right Thing (1989)


overlooked

This post comes under the Pointless List category. Indiewire just posted "The 100 Best Movies of the Decade". Along with this, they "asked our panel of film critics to pick the one overlooked film of the past 10 years that they most hope people will find, rediscover, or reconsider in the future." What follows is ten movies I think fit under the parameters of their question. None of these made their Top 100 of the Decade. None made their Overlooked survey. Having said that, here are some movies from the 2010s that I seem to have liked more than others. Not sure that makes them overlooked ... you've heard of a couple of these, I imagine. Each movie includes a link to when I wrote about them. There is no particular order, except that I think The Square is the best movie on this list.


geezer cinema/film fatales #57: booksmart (olivia wilde, 2019)

I wanted to like Booksmart a lot more than I eventually did. It's stylishly directed by a woman, it centers on two female characters, it has a few good jokes, and has a couple of favorites of mine in Kaitlyn Dever and Jessica Williams. But it's not much of a movie. I wish it were better. (Especially since it was my first pick in our new "Geezer Cinema" series.)

Part of the problem is that, as I've noted many times, I am not a fan of modern comedies. And there's my obsession with not knowing anything about a movie before I see it. In this case, I knew it had gotten good reviews, and I knew Olivia Wilde had encouraged people to see it as part of an effort to get more attention/funding/audiences for "movies made by and about women." What I didn't know is that it was a comedy. Which is another way of saying, your mileage may vary, but Booksmart is way out of my zone, not because it is about women, but because it's a comedy. You can take my words with a grain of salt. I did laugh a few times, and I found the film amiable ... I'm not sorry I saw it. But ...

I keep track of my movie ratings on MovieLens. There, I find that I have given 27 comedies my highest 10/10 rating. Here is the breakdown, by decade:

  • 1920s: 5
  • 1930s: 9
  • 1940s: 4
  • 1950s: 5
  • 1960s: 2
  • 1970s: 1
  • 2000s: 1

I can quibble with MovieLens' definition of "Comedy" ... if it were me, I don't think I'd include The Rules of the Game, for instance. And this little chart is not meant to establish a method for assigning greatness. It is completely subjective. But since A Hard Day's Night and Dr. Strangelove in 1964, I have given my highest rating to a grand total of two comedies: Richard Pryor: Live in Concert, and American Splendor. Booksmart was up against this ... I was never going to like it as much as I wanted to like it.

I liked it about as much as I liked Bridesmaids and Moonrise Kingdom and The Interview and The Favourite. I liked it more than I liked Tusk. If you liked those movies, you will probably like Booksmart. There are worse ways to spend an afternoon.

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


film fatales #56: exhibition (joanna hogg, 2013)

This is my first Joanna Hogg film, and so I can't tell if its idiosyncrasies are typical of her work. Exhibition is a bit different, in any event. It's in the traditional of movies where "nothing happens" ... I'd say it's one of the leaders of that genre. Hogg tells the story of a middle-aged couple who have decided to sell their house after 18 years of living in it. He is an architect named "H" (at least I think he's an architect, we don't get a lot of detail in that regard), she is a performance artist named "D". Their house is suitably modernist, and is the setting for almost the entire movie. Tom Hiddleston has a couple of scenes as a realtor which amount to a cameo ... the relationship between D and H is pretty much the whole movie.

Some people seem to think of D and H's marriage as falling apart, but I didn't get that. They are in a rut, and they occasionally try to break through that feeling, but for the most part, they reminded me of my wife and I, and we just celebrated our 46th anniversary without falling apart. Something is missing from their lives, just like something is missing from the house, which is exquisite yet somehow barren. D and H are childless, and again, some think this is important, but I thought they were just two people who didn't want kids.

Exhibition is rather chilly, and perhaps some viewers will think that proves the couple are in trouble. It is true that the most intense sex scene in the film comes when D masturbates in bed as H sleeps beside her ... OK, maybe they are in trouble.

The leads, Viv Albertine and Liam Gillick, are not actors ... this was the only movie as actor for each. Gillick is a conceptual artist, while Albertine has done many things, beginning with her time in the seminal punk band The Slits. In her wonderful memoir, Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys, Albertine writes about the making of Exhibition. She and Joanna Hogg were longtime friends, and Hogg asked her to star in the movie. Albertine said yes instantly, then had second thoughts after meeting Gillick. But she (and Gillick) stuck it out.

What I’m not confident about is my body, or my face. Joanna doesn’t want me to wear any makeup, and here’s the camera inches from my face (and thighs), god knows what kind of lens Ed Rutherford, the director of photography, is using. I have absolutely no control over what I look like. I feel like Blanche Dubois in A Streetcar Named Desire, when Stanley Kowalski grabs her face and holds it under a bare light bulb to see how old she really is (Vivien Leigh said that was the most painful scene she had ever filmed). On the first day of shooting I’m acutely aware of my age and the rarity of a movie camera lingering over an older woman’s face in films. Usually it’s a young woman’s face the camera loves, it almost caresses her: isn’t she beautiful, isn’t she perfect....

I couldn’t do the sex scenes if I had a boyfriend, it would be a betrayal. ... I haven’t been touched by a man for over a year, this is so strange, a man I don’t know touching me intimately, with another group of men I don’t know watching me, the microphone dangling over our heads and the blank shark eye of the camera lens recording it all. I’m half appalled and half aroused. ... By the time we get to the last sex scene, towards the end of the six-week shoot, I have to make a huge effort to get into it. I’m exhausted, all wrung out, I’ve given every last drop of myself. ...

One of the last scenes we shoot takes place in a country house. The room is cold and completely dark, there’s no bed, just a mattress in the middle of the floor. Joanna tells Liam and me to curl up together under a blanket. I put my head on Liam’s shoulder, he wraps his arm around me. I start sobbing uncontrollably. Joanna asks me what she should do, I say, ‘Keep filming, I’m not going to be able to stop.’ It’s the position we’re in that’s affected me so deeply. Just how Husband and I used to snuggle up together when we were happy. I cry continuously for the next four hours, the first time I’ve cried since the break-up of my marriage.

The visual style of the film, with shots through blinds and reflections everywhere, is a way of making the house into a character. It certainly has a bigger and more important role than does Tom Hiddleston.

Just because why not, here's a video of The Slits in 1979:

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


film fatales #55: la ciénaga (lucrecia martel, 2001)

La Ciénaga is a damp movie. You get sweaty just watching it. It represents Lucrecia Martel's artistic rendition of her childhood. Wikipedia offers this description of the film's background:

Lucrecia Martel's screenplay for the film won the Sundance Institute/NHK Award in 1999; this award honors and supports emerging independent filmmakers. The jury suggested she re-write the script to follow a more traditional structure around one or two protagonists, but she chose instead to retain the script's diffuse nature.

Martel has said in media interviews that the story is based on "memories of her own family." She has also said, "I know what kind of film I've made. Not a very easy one! For me, it's not a realistic film. It's something strange, a little weird. It's the kind of film where you can't tell what's going to happen, and I wanted the audience to be very uncomfortable from the beginning."

La Ciénaga is believable in a way that might suggest realism, or at least a form of magic realism (Martel and her film are from Argentina). But it is neither. It's realism with a twist ... the situations are recognizable and seemingly mundane, but Martel presents them in an off-center way. That awards jury knew what they were talking about. They were wrong about what La Ciénaga needed, and Martel didn't fall for their suggestions. But if she wanted to make a more straightforward movie, a traditional structure would have helped. It's just that she wasn't interested in that structure.

You can overstate the oddness of La Ciénaga. I expected something like Un Chien Andalou, but it's not nearly as obscure. You need to settle into its rhythms, you need to accept that Martel isn't going to hold your hand, but there's a difference between wanting the audience to be uncomfortable and making a movie that did not connect with an audience. Scenes begin and end in the middle, you aren't always immediately sure where you are, but you aren't lost.

And the lack of audience comfort mirrors the discomfort of the characters. The adults drink to escape their boredom, the kids run around trying to make something out of their boredom, and the Amerindian servants are looked down on by the grown-ups and loved by the kids. No one is happy, although most of them aren't exactly sad, either.

Martel makes great use of sound. At times, La Ciénaga plays like a horror movie ... sounds, many of them from nature, constantly lead us to expect something ominous is about to happen.

"La Ciénaga" means "The Swamp", and that accurately identifies the milieu in which these characters exist. There is a filthy swimming pool that serves a reminder of this, although the metaphor is perhaps a bit too on target. But overall, Martel's first feature is confident and promising.

La Ciénaga is #107 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century.

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)