the tomorrow man (noble jones, 2019)

On the one hand, you have two fine, venerable actors in John Lithgow and Blythe Danner. If you are fan of Danner, as I am, you might wonder why she so rarely appears in movies you'd like to see. I probably enjoyed her most in the TV series Huff. Point is, I'm glad to see her name in the credits for The Tomorrow Man, but I don't get my hopes up.

Next, you have writer/director/cinematographer Noble Jones (what a great name!), who makes his directorial debut after working mainly on music videos. He has worked (been mentored) by David Fincher ... he's not a novice. And he seems to have inspired his veteran cast. If had to summarize, I'd say Jones looks to be an intriguing director and cinematographer, but the story didn't do much for me, and the ending simultaneously came out of nowhere and yet was highly predictable. The Tomorrow Man is ultimately harmless, and I'm not sure that's what Jones was hoping for.

So my wife and I, both in our late-60s, were clearly supposed to identify with the geezers on the screen, but they didn't resemble any actual people I know. (One exception: Blythe Danner's character's house is as messy as ours.) Jones got The Tomorrow Man made, and that's no small accomplishment. But he hasn't yet made his first masterpiece.

wag the dog (barry levinson, 1997)

This is the thirtieth film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2020-21", "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 6th annual challenge, and my second time participating (last year can be found at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20"). Week 30 is called "'Playwrights Turned Screenwriters: Mamet Week".

Our main challenge is an examination of writers switching mediums, with their filmographies including adaptations and original screenplays. You can see how well their writing transfers over from stage to screen.

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen film written by David Mamet.

Not sure how this slipped by me over the years ... I was always intrigued by the premise, wherein a presidential adviser cooks up a phony war to distract attention away from an affair the president has had just before election day. I run hot and cold with Mamet. I liked The Untouchables, for which he wrote the script, but that movie has Brian De Palma all over it, so I wouldn't say Mamet was the guiding force. The only movie I've seen that he directed was House of Games, which I liked but can't recall. In short, while I watched this because Mamet wrote it, my response to the movie wasn't really affected by Mamet one way or the other.

It was fun watching Robert De Niro and Dustin Hoffman play off of each other, and they were clearly having fun, as well. Anne Heche wasn't handled as well ... she brings quirkiness to her roles, but here, quirky was all they gave her. They (Mamet? Levinson?) let her down. I can't stand Denis Leary, so I was surprised that his role was fairly small and not as obnoxious as usual.

As for the plot, it was clearly meant to feel real in that way satire does by exaggerating the possibilities we live in. But I thought too often the point was the gullibility and stupidity of the people, who are shown as being willing to fall for anything if the people doing the trickery are smart enough. I've never liked that kind of angle, and I didn't like it here.

So for me, Wag the Dog had some enjoyable acting, but didn't deserve the feel of self-satisfaction it exuded.

geezer cinema: concrete cowboy (ricky staub, 2020)

Concrete Cowboy is a paint-by-numbers coming of age story about a boy and his father. With one exception, there is nothing you haven't seen before, resulting in that oddity, an R-rated family movie. (The "R" comes from "language throughout, drug use and some violence", but come on.) It's that one exception that makes Concrete Cowboy a bit more than just another story: it's about a community called the Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club. Wikipedia explains:

Part of a century-long tradition of black urban cowboys and horsemanship in Philadelphia, local horsemen maintain and care for horses and teach neighborhood youth to do so. They encourage academic excellence and provide positive ways for local youth to spend their leisure time outdoors.

It's not just the presence of horses on the streets of Philadelphia that make a difference, it's the focus on black cowboys in the 21st century. It's not a story you see every day, and so even though it is presented in a fundamentally conservative way, fitting snugly into its genre, it's still intriguing. Granted, while I was watching, I was thinking mainly that I'd seen it before, but afterwards, realizing that I hadn't actually seen urban black cowboys made the movie stick in my mind.

It's the first feature for director/writer Ricky Staub, and he shows a good understanding for what makes a movie worth seeing. It is entirely possible he will make better movies than Concrete Cowboy. In the meantime, you've got Idris Elba, which makes up for a lot, Caleb McLaughlin as the son, and some nice support from Lorraine Toussaint and Method Man, among others. Concrete Cowboy is a nice enough way to spend two hours.

another round (thomas vinterberg, 2020)

The only other film from Thomas Vinterberg that I have seen is The Hunt, which also starred Mads Mikkelsen. It was a good movie, in large part because Mikkelsen was so interesting in it. Another Round is more of an ensemble piece than was The Hunt ... Mikkelsen stands out, but he's not the entire focus of the film. The story, of four high-school teachers who come up with the idea of trying to maximize their job performance (and their lives) by getting just drunk enough to bring out their best, is different at least.

I can't speak of the veracity of the image Another Round paints of a place where half the country, including the high-school kids, are drunk. (The Danish title is Druk, which means drinking.) Things get interesting when the teachers first find their abilities enhanced. It feels like Vinterberg wants us to believe the idea that drinking makes us better people. But things get carried away, as you know they must. They base their experiment on a theory that apparently is actually espoused by someone, that people need to raise their blood alcohol level to 0.05 to achieve peak performance. Once the four are successful (at least in their eyes), they wonder why they should stop at 0.05. Wouldn't things improve even more if they got drunker? Which they do.

The blend of comedy and drama isn't always smooth ... perhaps it isn't meant to be. There are plenty of fun (not necessarily funny) moments, and of course, there are moments of great drama, especially around the crumbling marriage of Mikkelsen's Martin and his wife, Anika (Maria Bonnevie). I was never sure just how tragic this was supposed to be. We never really see Martin and Anika when they are happy, so we don't have much at stake with their relationship. Overall, Another Round is about the four male teachers; it is sneakily a guy movie.

Everything changes in the final scene. Mikkelsen breaks into a drunken but still stylish dance, and for a couple of minutes, I couldn't keep the smile off of my face. For a brief period, I was unconcerned with what Vinterberg was trying to say. It's a lovely moment.

Another Round is nominated for two Oscars, Best International Feature and Best Director, which is unusual. I've seen all five pictures in the directing category, and Vinterberg doesn't stand a chance of winning. I haven't seen the other "international" movies, so I can't hazard a guess about that category.

where have all the people gone? (john llewellyn moxey, 1974)

This is the twenty-ninth film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2020-21", "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 6th annual challenge, and my second time participating (last year can be found at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20"). Week 29 is called "'70s Sci-Fi Week".

Science fiction films of the late 1960s lit the fuse for the boom that was '70s science fiction. Maybe people were sobering up from the drugs and ready to express themselves. Maybe the political landscape of the time was the inspiration, or perhaps some just wanted to tell cool stories. However they came to be, they are apart of a huge wave of sci-fi that would go on to shape the future of the genre forever.

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen science fiction film made in the 1970s.

I admit in advance that I didn't realize I'd chosen a TV movie. Where Have All the People Gone? was part of the NBC World Premiere Movie, which featured movies made for television. As such, it was more representative of made-for-TV films than it was the kind of movie that made up "the boom that was '70s science fiction". We're not talking Westworld or Soylent Green.

The movie begins with an inexplicable solar flash. Oh, it gets explained by the teenager/scientist who has a year of college, but it made no sense to me. Part of a nuclear family (dad, son, daughter ... mom left earlier) are all that is left. They head back to home (Malibu) and meet a few other survivors along the way, including one played by Verna Bloom, who later played Dean Wormer's horny wife in Animal House. Eventually we find out that after the solar flare a virus broke out that killed most of humanity. (Yes, this hit close to home.) The end finds our plucky survivors headed to Northern California, full of the inspiration that apparently comes from surviving. It's an open-ended finale that was a bit anti-climactic, but apparently there was hope it would become a series (it didn't).

I was reminded of other movies that, if not better, were at least more interesting. My beloved cheapie Robot Monster also featured a handful of people in a post-apocalyptic nightmare, and while that one gets my vote as the worst movie of all time, it's still endlessly watchable, which can't be said for Where Have All the People Gone? Closer was Panic in Year Zero!, a low-budget "classic" that featured Frankie Avalon as the young man. At least that movie had Les Baxter's intrusive music.

There was some talent involved. Peter Graves, who had been making this junk for 20 years, and who had just finished Mission Impossible, played Dad. Future Oscar nominee Kathleen Quinlan played Daughter. Lewis John Carlino, another future Oscar nominee, was the co-writer. John Llewellyn Moxey, who has his fans and who directed a billion TV episodes, was in charge. Despite all of this, Where Have All the People Gone? is pretty bad. And it didn't help that the Amazon Prime print was crappy, with bad color and lots of scratches. At one point, Son/Scientist uses a Polaroid camera to test for radiation, saying if the air is radioactive, a Polaroid photo will show spots. I guess his experiment was a success ... it was hard to tell, since the entire scene was filled with spots on the print.

geezer cinema: pieces of a woman (kornél mundruczó, 2020)

Near the beginning of Pieces of a Woman, we get an extended scene that is the equal of anything in any movie from 2020. We meet a couple expecting a baby ... it's time, the woman's water breaks, they are having a home birth. A midwife arrives, a replacement for the one they have worked with ... she is tied up in another delivery. The birth takes places over the course of more than 20 minutes, all done in a single take, which had to be very hard for the actors, especially Vanessa Kirby as the mom, Martha. (They did six takes in two days.)

What follows is an unsparing examination of grief. It is powerful, and Vanessa Kirby deserves her Oscar nomination (and not just for that birthing scene). As the substitute midwife, Molly Parker delivers (pun unintended) in a small part. And many will find Ellen Burstyn's performance as the Martha's mother be powerful, as well. Here I admit to a bias ... I have a real problem with moms who are oppressively intrusive. Burstyn does fine things with the part, and the relationship between mother and daughter is a highlight of the film. So YMMV, but I hated Burstyn's character, which got in the way of my appreciation of the part.

The structure of Pieces of a Woman makes perfect sense: the intensity of the birth scene, followed by a more subtle look at how the birth affects Martha and those around her. The film properly moves through scenes where Martha suffers in silence (it's here that Kirby really shines), interspersed with moments when her emotions force their way to the surface. I can't find fault with the way Kornél Mundruczó, writer Kata Wéber, and cinematographer Benjamin Loeb present the material. Whoever made the shot selections had a quirky eye ... at times we get closeups to reveal the emotions of the characters, at other times, the screen is oddly split to you might see part of a table and part of someone's legs.

Unfair as it is to point this out, the last 90 minutes can't possibly live up to the brilliance of the first half hour. The result is a movie I admire in retrospect, a film that is nearly perfect in so many ways, but one that feels like a slight letdown. Pieces of a Woman deserves a second look down the road.

godzilla vs. kong (adam wingard, 2021)

Are you going to tell me that you didn't know in advance whether or not you wanted to see Godzilla vs. Kong? It's just a case of variants ... put them in order, with the best at the top, but know that some people are going to watch all of the Godzilla/MonsterVerse movies and some will avoid them all like the plague. I thought King of the Monsters was the weakest, with the 2014 Godzilla the best and Skull Island in the middle. Put Godzilla vs. Kong alongside Kong: Skull Island in the middle and you'll have them about right.

Humans often get in the way in monster movies, and the best that can be said for most of the humans in GvK is that they aren't too awful. Brian Tyree Henry is always good, even with a role like this where he is almost comic relief. Opinion on Millie Bobby Brown is divided, but I thought she was fine, it was the character that annoyed. The clear winner is Kaylee Hottle making her film debut as Jia, the deaf friend of Kong. Hottle is herself deaf, and her fluency in American Sign Language is useful in this role, but she uses her face to express emotions that even those of us lacking in ASL knowledge can appreciate. There's an interesting angle to her relationship to Kong that I'll keep spoiler-free.

But you go to a movie called Godzilla vs. Kong for the monster fights, and they are pretty good. I won't give away who wins, but I'll mention, since this was leaked months ago, that Mechagodzilla does make an appearance. Meantime, sit back and enjoy, or, if you're so inclined, watch something else entirely.

We've come a long way since the last time these two battled it out:

One last note: Godzilla vs. Kong runs 113 minutes. Other makers of blockbusters, please take note ... you don't need 2 1/2 hours.

apart from you (mikio naruse, 1933)

This is the twenty-eighth film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2020-21", "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 6th annual challenge, and my second time participating (last year can be found at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20"). Week 28 is called "Eclipse Week".

Described by some as the B-sides of art house cinema. the Eclipse series by Criterion offers fairly underseen films a chance to garner a new audience through boxsets covering specific directors and writers, and even lesser known movements or moments in time. I realize that this is probably where you're going to have the most trouble tracking some of these down, but they're far from inaccessible. Well, in terms of availability anyway.

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen film from Criterion's Eclipse series.

I didn't realize until I started that Apart from You is a silent movie, despite its 1933 release. I knew nothing of the film beforehand ... I didn't know the work of writer/director Mikio Naruse, and I had only seen a couple of movies that included anyone from the cast of this one. This is a benefit of the Eclipse series. Indeed, of the 184 films in the above list, I had only seen 9 before Apart from You.

The movie only runs 61 minutes, and I admit I was glad, because I wasn't really captured by the film. There is some interesting material about the lives of geisha, and some sympathy towards them for being victims of poverty. But I never connected with the love story between the son of a geisha and another geisha who is his mother's co-worker. Also, Naruse makes good use of push-in shots that zoom in on a character, but after the 50th time, it was more annoying than effective.

geezer cinema: mud (jeff nichols, 2012)

Apparently, I'm going to have to add Jeff Nichols to my list of favorite current directors. This is the third movie I have seen of his, and he's good (or maybe it's Michael Shannon, who is in all three). About Take Shelter, I wrote, "It’s like M. Night Shyamalan only good, it’s a horror story, it’s really about the poor state of the American economy, it’s a finely-detailed portrait of a schizophrenic." Midnight Special, another Geezer pick from my wife, convinced me that "I need to see more movies by Nichols." My wife came through again, and Mud is every bit the equal of those other two.

Mud feels authentically Southern, and indeed, Nichols is from Arkansas, where the film takes place. That authenticity is useful, because the film is steeped in is-it-a-myth storytelling. The two young boys at the center of the narrative are believable humans, but Matthew McConaughey as the titular Mud is a figure out of a story more than he's an actual person. Actually, you could say that all three characters are out of the same story: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Like Twain's novel, Mud places its coming-of-age story in a recognizable place and then sneaks in the mythology.

This is all helped by the acting, not just by McConaughey but also from Ty Sheridan and Jacob Lofland (his film debut) as the two boys. Sheridan essentially carries the movie, and he's more than capable. Francine Maisler was in charge of the casting, and she deserves a hat tip, not only for those three, but also for the cast full of actors who are too well-known to qualify as "That Guys": Reese Witherspoon, Sam Shepard, Sarah Paulson, the ever-present Michael Shannon, along with a couple of true That Guys, Joe Don Baker and my beloved Ray McKinnon.

Mud is good enough that it mostly gets away with being guy-centric. Two boys coming of age under the semi-tutelage of an older man. The women characters fall a bit too easily into the angel/whore trope, with Mud in particular driven by a woman who keeps doing him wrong. But I don't want to go too far with this ... Witherspoon is especially strong in a way that refuses to be a stereotype.

There's a shootout at the end that feels a bit out of place in this film, although Nichols has prepared us for it. Otherwise, his work is very assured.

Where do I go next for a Jeff Nichols fix? He hasn't released a feature film since 2016, although there was an animated TV series, Hank the Cowdog. That still leaves me with Shotgun Stories and Loving.