film fatales #63: daughters of the dust (julie dash, 1991)

This is the latest film I have watched in "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." Week 7 is called "Director Recommendations: Spike Lee Week":

Though some may consider Spike Lee divisive and controversial, his devotion and contributions to cinema cannot be denied. Though he does have quite a few words to say on different directors, usually on the critical side, he made it a point to make a list of films he deems important for anyone looking to make films, and that's what we'll be looking at this week.

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen film from Spike Lee's list of Essential Films All Aspiring Directors Need to Watch.

It's easy to see why Spike Lee finds this movie essential. It was the first feature film directed by an African-American woman that was distributed theatrically in the United States. Dash had a lot of trouble getting it made, eventually bringing it in for under a million dollars. The end result makes a case for independence ... Daughters of the Dust showcases a culture that has been mostly ignored in mainstream films, and Dash holds nothing back, playing with time/narrative, making the movie as authentic to the Gullah as possible, and foregrounding women characters without demonizing the men. Most of the people both in front of and behind the camera were African-American.

All of this could be a confusing mess, and Dash does expect her audience to follow along at her pace rather than ours. But even if occasional instances are confusing, there is an overriding feel for the culture that brings everything together.

The actors are well-chosen for their faces, and Dash's ability to get the most out of those faces. The actors are not amateurs, though ... they may be unknown to me, but they are professionals who add to the documentary feel of some of the movie by blending in seamlessly with the ambiance.

This was Dash's first fictional feature, and despite the critical acclaim, she hasn't been able to make more. She is quite busy directing television, including a biopic about Rosa Parks and episodes of the series Queen Sugar. And Daughters of the Dust lives on within the people who have seen it ... Beyoncé was influenced by the film when she made Lemonade.

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)

what i watched

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman, 2018). I waited too long to watch this movie. It got critical raves, and won the Oscar for Best Animated Feature, but I'm not a huge Marvel fan, not a huge Spider-Man fan, not a huge fan of animated features that don't come from Miyazaki. Plus, my wife, who is a fan of the Marvel movies, is the one who usually takes me to see them, and this one didn't interest her.

Well, I've finally seen it, and it is every bit as good as people said. Endlessly inventive and full of surprises. I guess fans of the comics weren't as surprised as I, who hadn't read any of the related versions. They knew that the Spider-Verse featured multiple versions of Spider-Man ... I was unspoiled and thus amazed.

Into the Spider-Verse is a bit like if Philip K. Dick had written a Marvel book. We get at least two Spider-Mans, a Spider-Woman, a Spider-Man Noir, even Spider-Ham ("Peter Porker"). Each has distinguishing characteristics, and not just visually ... time is taken to give depth to each character. It's an ambitious movie, but those ambitions are extended beyond the usual spectacle to include a human element.

I've often wondered if the use of big name stars is a good thing for animation. There are so many great voice actors out there that deserve the work. Nonetheless, there are some excellent voices here, a tribute to the actors and/or the person in charge of casting the film (Mary Hidalgo is her name). Not all of them were megastars ... Nicolas Cage plays Spider-Man Noir, and Mahershala Ali and his two Oscars have an important role, but they are outliers in cast with folks like Brian Tyree Henry, Kimiko Glenn, and Kathryn Hahn. (Stan Lee even manages to work in his last cameo.) 

Champions of Into the Spider-Verse were right. To use a cliché, it's not just a good animated film, it's a very good film, period. Fans of Marvel will like it. People who don't often take in superhero movies will like it. I liked it.

Mystery Train (Jim Jarmusch, 1989). Slowly but surely, I am working my way through the films of Jim Jarmusch. One thing I've noticed is how consistent he is ... I've given the same rating to every one I've seen (Down by Law, Broken Flowers, Only Lovers Left Alive). Mystery Train is no different. Jarmusch has a style, one that is recognizable and influential. Jarmusch is not intimidated by a low budget (under $3 million for Mystery Train). He doesn't rush things, and cinematographer Robby Müller, a frequent Jarmusch collaborator, ensures that Mystery Train looks wonderful, even when showing us the scuzzier sides of Memphis. There is nothing accidental here.

There are a lot of characters in Mystery Train, and Jarmusch and the actors make those characters memorable. The main narrative is broken into three segments that are marginally connected in terms of plot, but perhaps more connected by theme. Of course, Elvis is the key connector. Two young Japanese tourists come to Memphis to see Graceland. An Italian woman has a vision of The King in her cheap motel room. Joe Strummer's character is nicknamed "Elvis" for his sideburns, if nothing else. And Memphis is a character, as well.

The cast seems like a gimmick, until you realize that Screamin' Jay Hawkins gives arguably the best performance in the film (certainly the most enjoyable), that Joe Strummer makes a fine tortured man dumped by his woman, that many in the cast are connected to others we know (Cinqué Lee is Spike's brother, Nicoletta Braschi is married to Roberto Benigni, who appeared in Down by Law, Elizabeth Bracco is Lorraine's sister) and all are good.

elite squad (josé padilha, 2007)

This is the latest film I have watched in "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." Week 6 is called "South American Cinema Week":

In an effort to showcase films from South America, I have chosen three countries with rich and interesting film histories to represent the best of what the continent has to offer. I've boiled it down to these three to curate the selection, yet still leave it open for some fantastic film options.

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen film from Brazil, Chile, or Colombia.

It wasn't easy to predict how much I'd like Elite Squad. The primary script writer was Bráulio Mantovani, who got an Oscar nomination for the screenplay for the great City of God. The film was a big winner at several festivals. It was very popular in Brazil, enough so that Padilha and Mantovani put together a sequel, Elite Squad: The Enemy Within, which became one of the greatest box office hits in Brazilian history.

But you know how I count on critics. And the Metacritic score for Elite Squad was 33 ("Generally unfavorable reviews"). (Manohla Dargis of the New York Times called it "a relentlessly ugly, unpleasant, often incoherent assault on the senses" ... that "wants to have its grinding violence and sanctimony too".) So I didn't know what to expect.

I'm glad to report that while Dargis is not inaccurate, I'm tempted to comment, "You say that as if it's a bad thing". It's hard to look away from the screen, and yes, often that just means you want to see what outrage comes next. Padilha effectively convinces us to accept the point of view of the cops. This is true in particular for the narrator, Nascimento, whose voice overs provide an ongoing commentary on what we see. Nascimento sees evil in the gangs, but he also sees what corruption does to the cops, himself included. He is the source for much of the relentless ugliness.

It isn't easy to figure out where Padilha and Mantovani stand on the events in the movie. The gangs are bad, the cops fight them by any means necessary, and thus we are glad for the cops who guard against utter chaos. But the cops are bad, as well, society is fucked in any case, and to the extent the cops are successful, Elite Squad plays like a primer for fascism.

Ultimately, while I could see the connections between Elite Squad and City of God, the comparison that came strongly to my mind was with Shawn Ryan's American TV series The Shield. The basics are the same: gangs ruining the city, bad-ass cops in the Strike Team the only barrier between crime and average citizens, practically everyone is corrupt. But, even though it takes seven seasons, Ryan makes sure that the head of the Strike Team, Vic Mackey, gets his comeuppance. Nascimento, on the other hand, has gotten a promotion by the time of the sequel.

I realize now that my review reflects the comments from Dargis: I'm often incoherent.

the taking of pelham one two three (joseph sargent, 1974)

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three is a New York Movie. There have always been New York Movies ... it's an official genre in a way that, say, Houston Movies are not. The early 1970s were a good time for New York Movies. The French Connection (1971), Serpico (1973), Dog Day Afternoon (1975), Taxi Driver (1976), and my favorite, Mean Streets (1973). Those were not the best times for NYC, and its image suffered. People like me, who didn't even visit New York City until 1982, when I was 29 years old, thought we knew what the place was like from those movies (I spent a lot of that visit looking for places that felt like Mean Streets). The first season of the current TV series The Deuce takes place in 1971 New York, and it's a sleazy place.

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three fits in with these other movies, although it isn't as good. It's a solid genre piece, and it feels to this outsider like it presents an accurate picture of the city. It's fairly tense, and the actors shine, although I don't know that anyone gave a career performance. David Shire's score is highly regarded, and I found it effective, although it felt at times like I was hearing the score to a 1970s TV cop series. While I never felt like there was much subtext the way you get in Scorsese's New York films of the time, there's nothing wrong with a movie that sets out to provide 104 minutes of entertainment and succeeds.

I get monthly recommendations from Bright Wall/Dark Room, and there have been some good ones in there. Pelham is another good one, yet I admit I'm a bit surprised they offered it. Another 1974 film, The Conversation, is more what I expect: arty film from a top director (Pelham is directed by Joseph Sargent, a journeyman better known for his work in television). But that's the nice thing about good recommendations ... they are unexpected.

what i watched

A Day in the Country (Jean Renoir, 1946). I have never seen a movie by Jean Renoir that I didn't like a lot, and of course, The Rules of the Game and Grand Illusion are among my favorite movies of all time. A first glance, A Day in the Country might seem like "minor" Renoir ... he intended it as a short to fit into an anthology film, but didn't finish it. It was finally released ten years later. But there is nothing minor about it. It plays like a warm up for Rules of the Game, and it demonstrates the usual Renoir touch for humanizing all characters without getting sappy about it. And the people connected with this one are a who's who in their own right. The story comes from Guy de Maupassant ... the female lead is played by Sylvia Bataille, a top actress who also spent many years with Jacques Lacan ... among the many assistant directors were Jacques Becker, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Yves Allégret, and Luchino Visconti (on a 40-minute movie!) ... the cinematographer was Jean's nephew, Claude ... and Jean's son Alain appears briefly (he grew up to be a professor at Cal, where I once was privileged to hear him tell a dirty joke). Can I get a whew!? All of this trivia shouldn't draw our attention away from how good A Day in the Country is. #125 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time.

Code Unknown (Michael Haneke, 2000). One of the many recommendation systems I use suggested I watch In Vanya's Room, from the highly-regarded director Pedro Costa. But I had seen one of Costa's movies, Colossal Youth, and didn't like it much. And In Vanya's Room clocks in at 170 minutes. So I opted for Code Unknown. I had seen four films by Michael Haneke, and found all but one to be excellent (especially Caché and The White Ribbon), so it was a pretty easy choice. Haneke's movies are idiosyncratic, intense, and for some people, a little cold. Juliette Binoche helps warm things up with a fine performance. Haneke chops up his scenes ... each is usually just one take, and he uses blackouts to go from one scene to the next. It can be confusing, but it works in the context of a film about modern multicultural society, where we never seem to know the code. (Haneke has said that at the time he made the movie, Austria, where he was from, still mostly used door bells and intercoms, while in France where the filming took place, everyone typed in codes to gain access.) Always intriguing even when it confuses, and Binoche makes up for a lot. #757 on the TSPDT top 1000 list, #119 on the 21st Century list. In this early scene, several main characters cross paths:

film fatales #62: a woman, a part (elisabeth subrin, 2016)

This is the sixth film I have watched in "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." This is out of order ... I already watched the Week 5 movie, Craig's Wife. This is from Week 31, because it won't be available to stream after the 11th. Week 31 is called "Contemporary Women Directors Week":

Last Season Challenge, there was a weekly challenge that focused on women directors pre-1960's. But this year, I thought we should focus on the women creating films today. Its no real secret that the film industry has not offered a lot of opportunity to women, though that seems to be slowly changing. So, in order to support these women currently creating films, we're gonna spend this week watching films directed by them. And hopefully someday there won't be such a divide in the industry that we won't need to push for more women helmed films, it'll just be happening already.

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen film directed by a woman released in 2010 or later.

This is writer/director Elisabeth Subrin's first feature, although she has been making independent shorts for more than 20 years. Her experience means A Woman, A Part is missing the "first time out" problems that sometimes plague first features. This is a confident movie ... you never get the feeling Subrin isn't sure of what she's up to. I haven't seen her shorts, so I don't know how A Woman, A Part fits into her past work, but she offers an easy coherence to her story of a successful television actor, Anna, suffering from burn-out, and her attempt to get back to her roots in theater. The cast features several actors I know best from television: Maggie Siff (Sons of Anarchy, Mad Men), Cara Seymour (The Knick), John Ortiz (Luck), Khandi Alexander (The Corner, Treme). They are all great, which comes as no surprise. It's nice to see Siff in a leading role ... she's in virtually every scene, and she plays her part with a complicated balance of the character's uncertain neurosis about her profession and Siff's certain ability to make the most of this meaty part.

Subrin keeps things moving, and I suspect editor Jennifer Ruff has something to do with that. The film suffers from the dreariness of its main character ... Anna is mopey at times, she's coming off an auto-immune disease, she's abusing drugs, and she's not sure what she wants for her future. It's hard to complain, though. To properly give us Anna, Subrin knows she has to avoid any flashiness we might associate with a TV star. And Siff is so good, she gets us through the slower segments.

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)

what i watched

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (John S. Robertson, 1920). This is the fourth film I have watched in "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." Week 4 is called "Horrors Beyond Words Week":

With this week's challenge, we see how filmmakers were able to terrify audiences with nothing but imagery (and maybe a little score). Be on the lookout for some fascinating early film making techniques present within needed to make a successful horror flick without words.

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen silent horror film. Paul D's list can help you get started.

Right from the start, there were problems. The print was crappy (I watched on Amazon), the score was crappy. (The movie is in the public domain.) The story still intrigues, but the film didn't linger enough ... you got Jekyll, you got Hyde, you got Jekyll, you got Hyde. The theme of good and bad sides of the same person was always there, but for me, it didn't seem all that powerful.

John Barrymore was excellent, although you have to accept that it requires skilled overacting to portray the transformation from Jekyll to Hyde without trickery. (There is trickery, but the initial scene shows what I mean.)

The cast included a couple of interesting actors. Louis Wolheim was famous for having his face smashed during a college football game, making him unmistakable in his later career as an actor. And Nita Naldi's brief career was kick-started with her role here as the "bad girl". She is very effective. Naldi famously posed nude for pin-up artist Alberto Vargas, and is reported to have introduced herself to her Blood and Sand co-star Rudolph Valentino with "Howdy, Rudy! Wanna feel my tits?"

Barrymore was known as "The Great Profile", and sure enough, we get plenty of profile shots of the master throughout Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. This isn't where I'd start if I were introducing Barrymore to newcomers ... I might go with Dinner at Eight, although that is admittedly an ensemble piece.

Asylum of Darkness (Jay Woelfel, 2017). A few weeks ago, I watched an awful movie called Demonicus. Thursday, the director of that movie, Jay Woelfel, left a comment:

Hello, Steven, I am Jay Woelfel, Demonicus was a work for hire that was re-edited before release without my involvement. If you, or anyone else, is interested in me and my films where I really had some control you can find out much about me on My most recent film came out in 2017/2018 and is named ASYLUM OF DARKNESS.

I was delighted to hear from him, and decided to watch Asylum of Darkness, which you can stream on Amazon. Woelfel deserved a chance to show what he could do with his own project.

Asylum of Darkness is a vast improvement on Demonicus. It featured one of the last performances by the late Richard Hatch. The film was shot in 35mm, which gave it not just a professional look, but the look of the kind of pre-digital horror movies it replicates. There are good makeup effects, and plenty of gore ... and by "plenty", I mean plenty.

Woelfel is up to something here ... I have no idea what, but he has a vision, and he pulls it off. It becomes one of those movies that isn't for me, but which probably accomplishes what the film maker set out to do. The plot is completely confusing, and only partly explained by the insanity of the central character. The acting is OK ... in fact, kudos to them, because the need for confusion means they have little to grab onto. It's hard to establish a character when the person you are playing changes every few minutes.

I'm glad I got to see Woelfel's work in a different, non-Demonicus, light. And if you are a fan of gory, good-looking but nonsensical horror, I think you'll like Asylum of Darkness.

geezer cinema: end of the century (lucio castro, 2019)

End of the Century features a slight story that sneakily turns into something else. It takes quite awhile for anyone to speak ... my wife noted that it didn't seem to need subtitles, and the first time someone says something, it's "Kiss", which is helpfully subtitled as "Kiss". After that slow but not boring beginning, End of the Century turns into something of a rom-com, with more rom than com. It's pleasant, and co-stars Juan Barberini and Ramon Pujol are well-matched as the potential couple. Barcelona makes a nice setting for it all, and while I've only been there once, it seemed to me that Lucio Castro (who directed, wrote, and edited the film) chose to feature less-familiar places.

And then ... here I need to offer a spoiler warning, although as is my usual, I'll try to avoid being explicit ... we learn something startling about the two men, and Castro instantly takes us back in time 20 years (without anything specifically telling us he has done this). It's jarring at first, but we quickly settle into the "new" time frame. Mía Maestro (The Strain) turns up and is a strong addition to what is now something of a threesome.

Just as Castro blends 2019 and 1999 without quite drawing attention to itself, he presents sexuality as a blend that doesn't quite draw attention to itself. When we first meet the men, they jump into bed, but both seem to have had a relationship in the past with Maestro's character, and Castro doesn't make a lot of this. There is nothing transgressive about anyone's behavior, they just are.

But Castro isn't done surprising us, and at this point, I don't need to avoid spoilers, because I'm not sure myself what happens in the final section of the film. This is usually a sore spot for me ... I don't like confusing narratives for the most part ... but it all works as part of an examination of love and memory. I may not know what "happens", but I get a lovely sense of how people experience their lives. Real life doesn't always make sense, either, and memories are always questionable. Castro has given us an impressive first feature.

losing it at the movies: jaws (steven spielberg, 1975)

Picking this up after a break of three months, this is the seventh in a series, "Losing It at the Movies," which is explained here.

In 5001 Nights at the Movies, Pauline Kael wrote of Jaws:

It may be the most cheerfully perverse scare movie ever made. Even while you’re convulsed with laughter you’re still apprehensive, because the editing rhythms are very tricky, and the shock images loom up huge, right on top of you. The film belongs to the pulpiest sci-fi monster-movie tradition, yet it stands some of the old conventions on their head.... When the three protagonists are in their tiny boat, trying to find the shark that has been devouring people, you feel that Robert Shaw, the malevolent old shark hunter, is so manly that he wants to get them all killed; he’s so manly he’s homicidal.... The director, Steven Spielberg, sets up bare-chested heroism as a joke and scores off it all through the movie.... The fool on board isn’t the chief of police, or the bookman, either. It’s Shaw, the obsessively masculine fisherman, who thinks he’s got to prove himself by fighting the shark practically single-handed. The high point of the film’s humor is in our seeing Shaw get it; this nut Ahab, with his hypermasculine basso-profundo speeches, stands in for all the men who have to show they’re tougher than anybody. The shark’s cavernous jaws demonstrate how little his toughness finally adds up to. This primal-terror comedy quickly became one of the top-grossing films of all time.

Kael also told the following anecdote:

While having a drink with an older Hollywood director, I said that I’d been amazed by the assurance with which Steven Spielberg, the young director of Jaws, had toyed with the film frame. The older director said, “He must never have seen a play; he’s the first one of us who doesn’t think in terms of the proscenium arch. With him, there’s nothing but the camera lens.”

I thought about that latter quote while watching Jaws again. I'm not positive I understand the point, and it's likely we don't see the revolutionary nature of Spielberg's work because in the last 44 years, it's become the norm. Still, let me give it a try. Spielberg blocks his scenes for the camera, not for the stage. He uses the camera as an aid in that blocking. He doesn't simply tell the actors where to stand ... he tells them where to move within a shot, and then moves the camera to solidify what he wants on the screen. Sometimes you notice what he is doing, but other times, he makes what we are watching seem "natural", as if no one was actually directing. His skill at changing points of view allows the audience to feel a part of first one character and then another, along with the occasional omniscient angle. In the case of Jaws, credit is due to editor Verna Fields, but often, it seems that Spielberg is editing in the camera so there is nothing left to do in the editing room.

Jaws is one of four Spielberg films I consider classics, along with Close Encounters of the Third Kind (my favorite), Raiders of the Lost Ark, and E.T. Yet Jaws also changed movie history in what seems to me to be unfortunate ways. As Wikipedia notes, "Jaws was the prototypical summer blockbuster, regarded as a watershed moment in motion picture history, and it won several awards for its music and editing. It was the highest-grossing film until the release of Star Wars in 1977. Both films were pivotal in establishing the modern Hollywood business model, which pursues high box-office returns from action and adventure films with simple high-concept premises, released during the summer in thousands of theaters and heavily advertised." Jaws is a great film, and it wasn't the last great one of Spielberg's career. But this movie marks the beginning of the end of the "New Hollywood" era that began with Bonnie and Clyde. There have been many great American movies since Jaws, and however you define "New Hollywood", it still had plenty of life. But I've spent a lot of my life blaming Star Wars for what happened to Hollywood, and it's only fair to note that Jaws was there first.

Since this is a Pauline Kael-related post, I should include a link to one of her most famous essays that addresses some of the above: "Why Are Movies So Bad? or, The Numbers" from 1980.

#91 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time.

geezer cinema: downton abbey (michael engler, 2019)

If this were a consumer guide, I'd have the easiest job in the world. If you liked and watched the TV series Downton Abbey, you will like this movie. If you didn't like the series, don't bother with the movie. The only tricky area is for people who have never seen Downton Abbey but are curious. My suggestion would be to start with the TV show ... I'm not sure that the movie will appeal to someone who doesn't already have a history with the characters. But the film is more like a bonus episode than it is a standalone.

The differences are still worth noting. Primarily, Downton Abbey has always looked scrumptious, and it benefits from a big, wide, screen. (We saw it in Dolby Cinema, which wasn't all that noticeable for sound but which made scrumptious look even more so.) A couple of the new characters are interesting, largely because of the actors involved. Still, it's Downton Abbey, and no one acts too much out character, so it's a feel-good movie for the fans. Given the fairly conservative nature of the show, it is no surprise that there are no drastic changes here.

The similarities are such that I can cheat and cut-and-paste from what I wrote about the TV finale in 2016:

Julian Fellowes humanized the rich upstairs and the working downstairs, and he gave equal time to servants and royalty alike. The gradual progression of time meant we got a lot of talk about how we had to accept the future, which for the rich meant taking better care of their crops and starting new automotive businesses. But progress for the downstairs servants was always limited. Barrow was the most ambitious of the servants when the series began, and he was the most outright unlikable character on the show, as if wanting to improve himself was a bad thing. In the finale, Barrow got what he had always wanted: he became the butler. He didn’t become rich, he didn’t gain any power beyond the walls of the Abbey. But that was enough to fulfill his ambitions.

More problematic was Tom, whose social position leaped far beyond Barrow’s paltry desires. As the show began, Tom was the chauffeur, involved in socialist politics. He was quite the firebrand. Eventually, though, he marries Lady Sybil, and by the finale, he has long been established as one of the family, entrusted with Lady Mary to the managing of the estate, his socialism a thing of the past. His co-option makes the Crawleys seem liberal for their class, but they make no real concessions outside of accepting this one person. The class structure remains.

I could watch any random episode with at least some pleasure ... the dialogue was often entertaining, and much of the acting was excellent. But I had to turn off my brain, because if I thought about the show for more than five minutes, I always returned to the way Fellowes took the side of the upper class.

All of the above is true of the movie. Barrow experiences a personal moment that is heartening. Tom's past as a socialist is used for a weak and unnecessary side plot (this matters because in general, things move too quickly in the movie ... all of the characters get their turns, but for many of them, those turns are far too brief).

Of the newcomers, two stand out. Imelda Staunton, a veteran who I loved in Another Year, is the latest member of acting royalty to share dialogue with Maggie Smith. And Tuppence Middleton, one of my many favorites from Sense8, has a substantial role that seems to guarantee her presence in any future sequels.

I've gone on long enough. Once every three years seems about right to me ... I really don't need more seasons of this show.