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.


film fatales #171: the house is black (forugh farrokhzad, 1963)

The House Is Black is a short (21 minutes) documentary about a leper colony in Iran, considered now to be a central movie in Iranian film history. It is the only film directed by Forugh Farrokhzad, an important poet who died in a car accident when she was only 32. Her approach is unique, including voice-over narration by Farrokhzad of her own poetry, along with other narration taken from the Old Testament and the Koran.

While Farrokhzad and cinematographer Soleyman Minasian do not shy away from the realities of what leprosy does to a body, there is no feel of exploitation. We get an honest look at the disease and its effects, but Farrokhzad insists on our also seeing the essential humanity in the people who appear in the movie. As the first lines of narration say, "There is no shortage of ugliness in the world. If man closed his eyes to it, there would be even more."

One wishes that Farrokhzad had lived long enough to give us more films. Over time, The House Is Black has only increased in reputation ... it is #241 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time.

film fatales #170: meek's cutoff (kelly reichardt, 2010)

I've yet to be bowled over by a Kelly Reichardt film. I didn't like Old Joy, and had a more positive reaction to Wendy and Lucy and First Cow. Meek's Cutoff is somewhere between all of those. It looks like a realistic portrait of what it was like on the Oregon Trail in 1845: dirt, dust, no water, boring. Ironically, I had no idea it was based in part on real life events (there was a real Stephen Meek who had found the Cutoff that bears his name). Honestly, it was irrelevant that the story was "real" ... what mattered was how effectively Reichardt gave us a wagon train of settlers fighting the elements and the uncertain skills of Meek, their guide.

Meek's Cutoff is the kind of film that does such a good job of presenting the crushing boredom of the situation that the movie itself becomes boring. I don't know that there is a fix-it for this. Give us some standard action and the verisimilitude at the heart of the picture would be ruined. Reichardt relies on the changing interactions between the settlers and Meek for provide some forward movement. There is also an Indian (that's his name in the credits, "The Indian") captured by Meek ... while he speaks no English, somehow it is communicated to him that they are looking for water, while the racist Meek just wants to kill him. There's a will he/won't he angle that provides a bit of suspense, but in the end, Reichardt resists making too much of that suspense. She focuses on the interplay between the characters and the growing mistrust of the settlers for Meek.

The film's ending emphasizes this. The group must decide who to follow, Meek or the Indian. As the Indian walks in the direction of what we assume he believes to be water, the settlers ponder what to do. And the screen goes to black, and the credits roll. I thought this was a cheat, but perhaps it's appropriate the ultimate result is left up in the air. For me, it was a final frustration with a film I never warmed to, although it didn't inspire the hatred I had for Old Joy. #927 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time (#117 on the 21st-century list).

revisiting the 9s/film fatales: portrait of a lady on fire (céline sciamma, 2019)

[This is the fifteenth in a 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. 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.]

I first saw Portrait of a Lady on Fire in 2020. At that time, I wrote, comparing it to Blue Is the Warmest Color:

The films do make for instructive examples of the differences between the male and female gaze. And "gaze" is the proper term for Portrait of a Lady on Fire, for much of the relationship between the two women is shown in how they look at each other. Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel as a painter and her reluctant subject are perfectly matched, and both deliver perfect performances.

A second viewing only emphasized how intensely Sciamma and her actors convey so much desire just by looking at each other. Merlant's eyes in particular are dark and deep ... you could fall into them and never return.

I also quoted Mick LaSalle, who wrote, "The last time I wanted two people to kiss this much, I was one of the people."

We watched with friends who hadn't seen it before, and one of them said you always knew they were going to kiss. Yes, I said, but it's like Hitchcock saying that "suspense is when the spectator knows more than the characters in the movie." In his example, the audience knows there's a bomb under the table, and it is suspenseful because we know it will go off, but the characters are clueless to this eventuality. In Portrait of a Lady on Fire, the audience knows the women will kiss, but Sciamma draws out the exquisite expectation of that kiss, such that you start to wonder if maybe you were wrong. Spoiler alert: they kiss.

Is it "really" a 10 and not a 9? Probably ... if it was made in the 1960s, I wouldn't have feared rating it too highly because of its newness. Having seen only two of her movies (the other being Petite Maman), I am prepared to accept that Céline Sciamma is one of our finest film makers.

film fatales #169: the sleepwalkers (paula hernández, 2019)

This is the thirty-second film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2022-23", "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 8th annual challenge, and my fourth time participating (my first year can be found at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20", the second year at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2020-21", and last year at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2021-22"). Week 32 is called "Voices of Argentina Week":

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen film from one of the following Argentine filmmakers: Paula HernándezLucrecia Martel, or Damian Szifron.

I chose Paula Hernández, a random choice ... I've seen three Lucrecia Martel movies, wanted something new. The Sleepwalkers doesn't seem to have gotten much attention in this country ... only a few reviews are online, and many of those are in Spanish. The film was submitted as Argentina's entry in the International Feature Oscar category (the winner was Another Round, a good movie with one great scene). Paula Hernández has escaped my attention for no apparent reason. The lead actor, Érica Rivas, is known in Argentina but, like so much connected with The Sleepwalkers, not much is known about her in America. Wikipedia shows the absence of information: the pages on the movie, Hernández, and Rivas are short, and Ornella D'Elía, who plays one of the title characters and is the second most important person in the film, has no Wikipedia page at all.

The plot, about a family where sleepwalking is apparently passed on genetically, is OK. Everything leads to a crucial event that you can see coming, but you want to be proven wrong. When it turns out you are right, it's heartbreaking.

It's not a great movie, but it certainly deserving of more attention than it has gotten. It's another good example of the wonders of a Challenge ... you see movies you would have otherwise missed. Based on what I've seen, the person to watch for is Lucrecia Martel ... La Ciénaga is especially good.

film fatales #168: europa europa (agnieszka holland, 1990)

The revelations of the plot of Europa Europa will strike you as too convenient. More than once, when the main character Sally is teetering on the edge of being discovered as a Jew amongst Nazis, something happens, like an Allied bombing, that removes those who might accuse him. But these coincidences are allowed, because Europa Europa is a true story, based on the memoirs of the real Solomon Perel.

There are many ways in which writer/director Agnieszka Holland avoids making "just another Holocaust movie". The primary way is through a subdued humor, rarely laugh-out-loud but inevitably contrasted to the way we tend to think of the Holocaust. In a different context, Sally's story does have its funny moments. Part of what makes the movie successful is that Holland never loses sight of the context that always interrupts those moments. And she never collapses into slapstick ... this isn't an outrageous Holocaust comedy, but rather the story of how one boy managed to survive in the most dreadful of situations.

The overall tone does detract, ultimately ... it's an interesting movie that would be more hard-hitting without the humor, or more shocking without the context. But that tone is also what distinguishes Europa Europa from other films. Even as you experience scenes that remind you of movies from the past, you've never seen anything quite like this one. Bonus points for the presence of a young Julie Delpy, dubbed into German.

film fatales #167: strange days (kathryn bigelow, 1995)

I've been a vocal fan of Kathryn Bigelow since 1987's great vampire movie Near Dark. She is the only director of ten or more movies where I have seen every one of those pictures. She was stuck in the "cult film" genre for too long. Point Break was a real financial success, but Strange Days, which followed it, was a colossal flop ($8 million box office on a budget of $42 million). She didn't direct another feature for five years, and when she did, it was The Weight of Water, her worst picture (and another box office failure), and then K-19: The Widowmaker, which lost money despite a cast headed by Harrison Ford and Liam Neeson. It was another six years before a Bigelow-directed film was released, and long-time fans like myself were delighted when that film, The Hurt Locker, made Bigelow the first-ever woman to win a Best Director Oscar.

Bigelow is a grand stylist, and I'm not generally a fan of style over substance. She has never made a perfect film, not even my beloved Near Dark. But a movie like Strange Days is very much in the Bigelow tradition of movies that look great, look interesting, and are just a bit off-kilter in appealing ways (for her fans, at least). It's too long, and the plot is muddled at times, but there is definitely something going on. It was released in 1995 after a long gestation that involved a lot of input from James Cameron, for a couple of years Bigelow's husband  ... his name is all over the credits, most notably as writer. (In a fine irony, when Bigelow won her Oscar, one of the other nominated directors was Cameron.) It's fascinating that the film, made largely in the early-90s, and taking place on the end of the 20th century (it culminates with a huge celebration on New Year's Eve as 1999 turns into 2000), offers a society in upheaval, with racial tensions aggravated by the actions of cops. Usually, a dystopia looks some years into the future, but for the Strange Days filmmakers, dystopia was just around the corner. And while some of the film feels dated, its depiction of violent cops attacking people of color is sadly too close to home in 2023.

In the world of Strange Days, people get "jacked in" via a kind of virtual reality that allows them to experience the actions of others as they were happening, as that other. There can be a sweetness to this, as when a dealer gifts a tape of a person running on the beach to a man with no legs:

But mostly, those virtual experiences turn ugly, with one in particular being so revolting, critic David Denby wrote, "Conceptually, this is the sickest sequence in modern movies". The problem, as is so often the case with Bigelow, is that while she appears to be offering a violent world accompanied by disturbing virtual realities, she is in fact so good at creating these scenes that you can't help but be impressed. It's like a Cecil B. DeMille movie ... oh, we don't approve of immorality, hey, look at this orgy! Bigelow critiques the violence in such as stylish way that she makes us love it, no matter the intentions.

Still, it's got a remarkable cast. The three leads all had Oscar nominations by the time the film was made: Ralph Fiennes, Angela Bassett, and Juliette Lewis. It's fun seeing how everyone looked almost 30 years ago, especially Vincent D'Onofrio and Tom Sizemore (the latter has long, stringy hair). Lewis sings a couple of PJ Harvey songs, including "Rid of Me". There are plenty of other fun names in the cast: Michael Wincott, Glenn Plummer, Richard Edson, William Fichtner.

Strange Days has also been very hard to see for a long time. It's been out of print forever. It recently turned up streaming on HBO Max, which is where I caught it (I hadn't seen it since it first came out). It's not the place to start with Bigelow ... that would be Near Dark and The Hurt Locker. But like almost all of her work, it's compulsively watchable.

film fatales #166: the pale horse (leonora lonsdale, 2020)

This is the twenty-ninth film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2022-23", "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 8th annual challenge, and my fourth time participating (my first year can be found at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20", the second year at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2020-21", and last year at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2021-22"). Week 29 is called "Cinema of Christie Week":

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen film adapted from a work by Agatha Christie.

I'm not sure how I ended up fulfilling this week's challenge with The Pale Horse, which isn't actually a movie at all, but is rather a two-part BBC mini-series. It must have been on the above-mentioned Agatha Christie list, but it's not there any longer.

Leonora Lonsdale is the director, but the project was led by writer Sarah Phelps. This was her fifth Christie adaptation for the BBC. I can't speak to the comparison between the Christie novel and this series, but it appears Phelps gave us a fairly loose adaptation. The story is tricky in mostly good ways, keeping the audience a half-step of the plot twists. There is a suggestion of the supernatural that both seemed out of place and worked to take us out of the same-old same-old of an ordinary Christie tale.

Rufus Sewell effectively carries the series as an upper-class antique dealer, Mark Easterbrook, who isn't everything he seems to be. Christie/Phelps keeps us wondering if Mark is a good guy or a bad guy by keeping his character both shady and somewhat appealing. On the one hand, I imagine Christie fans will welcome any version of one of the novels, while those who lean towards a more hardboiled approach might be impatient. On the other hand, perhaps the changes Phelps devises would turn off the fans. As I say, I don't know the book so I can't say how much Phelps deviates from the original.

The Pale Horse is a decent time-filler, but I wasn't overwhelmed.