film fatales #72: honeyland (tamara kotevska and ljubomir stefanov, 2019)

Honeyland is a cinéma vérité portrait of a woman in Macedonia who is a beekeeper. Often with vérité documentaries, it is obvious that the people in the film are aware of the camera and crew. This never happens in Honeyland, and Hatidze Muratova, the beekeeper, is particularly "natural" in front of the camera. But it helps to remember that however it seems, there is a camera and crew that is present throughout the shooting of the film. 

While I usually prefer to know as little as possible going into a film, in the case of Honeyland, some advance knowledge would have been helpful. It was filmed over a period of three years, and while events occur over time, you couldn't build a real timeline based only the information in the film ... for all I knew, it could have been filmed over one year, or six months. It's not crucial to appreciating the film, but it's an example of how, absent context, Honeyland is often rather abstract. At one point, Muratova gets neighbors, a large family that sees her successes and decides to enter the beekeeping business as well. Muratova lives in harmony with her environs, but the family doesn't quite get how that harmony contributes to a balance that benefits all. Soon enough (or not ... again, I don't know how long this part of the movie takes in real time), the family's business fails while Muratova's suffers as well.

Honeyland is often gorgeous ... the Macedonia countryside is shown to great advantage. And the film makers do wonders with limited resources, working in an area without electricity, filming in Muratova's dark, cave-like home, at a location that is far removed from cities. Muratova herself is a remarkable character, without whom I'm not sure there would even be a movie.

But at several points, I wondered how Kotevska and Stefanov managed to maintain the hands-off needs of this kind of anthropological documentary. A young child almost drowns, and I was thinking, jeez, I hope if this turns really serious, they'll put down their cameras and save the little tyke.

Honeyland is nominated for two Oscars, Best Documentary Feature and Best International Feature, which points to the breadth of its accomplishments. If part of what film can offer is a window into lives far different from our own, then Honeyland delivers.

(Here is a letterboxd list of Film Fatales movies.)

sacro gra (gianfranco rosi, 2013)

Another movie for "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 17 is called "Golden Lion Week":

One of the three major film festival awards (the other two being the Palme d'Or at Cannes and the Goldener Bär, or Golden Bear from the Berlin IFF), the Golden Lion, or the Leone d'Oro, is the highest prize a film can receive at the Venice International Film Festival. Introduced in 1949, the Golden Lion represents the Lion of Saint Mark, which had appeared on the flag of the Republic of Venice when it was a sovereign state, and is one of the highest awards achievable in the film industry.

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen Golden Lion winning film.

One good thing about the Letterboxd Challenge is that I see movies that aren't ordinarily in my wheelhouse. In fact, I'd never heard of Sacro GRA before.

One bad thing about the Letterboxd Challenges is that I sometimes see movies I don't like. And now that I've not only heard of Sacro GRA but seen it, I can say I didn't like it.

Gianfranco Rosi spent two years filming on the Grande Raccordo Anulare, a highway that encircles Rome. Another 8 months were spent editing. The result was a series of short vignettes of various people who live in the vicinity. They all get multiple appearances, but honestly, I didn't learn anything from the third time as I did on the first. The EMT guy was nice, the father/daughter living in a small room were OK, the guy who fished for eels was a guy who fished for eels, the guy who checked for bug infestation in palm trees was obsessively scientific. Any one of these people might have made an interesting half-hour short. Spreading their "stories" over 90 minutes without spending more than 10 or 15 minutes on any particular person results in a film that is barely worth saying awake for. I have no idea why it won a Golden Lion.

geezer cinema: 1917 (sam mendes, 2019)

1917 is a movie with a trick. It's a technical trick, and it isn't always clear that it serves the picture as well as a more ordinary approach might. But the trick is so well done that you can't help but admire it, even though, paradoxically, the film works best when you forget about the trick.

That trick is to make 1917 appear to be shot in one take. You can't help but notice it at the beginning, when the two heroes are making their way through a long trench (1917 is a World War I story). But as the heroes encounter increasingly dangerous happenings, you occasionally forget about the one-take angle. I don't want to say the movie is at its best in those moments ... the technical achievements really are remarkable. But what raises 1917 above the level of a novelty is the acting, in particular that of Dean-Charles Chapman and George MacKay as the heroes. There is plenty of war horror, but Chapman and especially MacKay are the human element. That is what makes 1917 more than a trick.

1917 is nominated for 10 Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Cinematography. The cinematography award will surely go to Roger Deakins, and the film is worthy of many of the other Oscar categories. The narrative draws us in, and we really want the end to resemble a happy one. The movie is often hard to watch; it's not exactly entertaining, although this is appropriate for a war movie. But after two hours, we feel like we deserve a little something as we leave the theater.

What I especially liked is the way the trickery is human rather than CGI. You know that real people pulled this off. It's a bit like what makes Fury Road so much better than other recent action pictures.

World War I was one of the stupidest and most brutal wars, even given that all wars are stupid and brutal. 1917 doesn't stop to notice this ... no historical context is provided, and a lot of the brutality lies on the ground as the heroes make their trek. It might have been a better movie if such context were at least hinted at. Certainly it would be different. But the accomplishment of Mendes, Deakins and the rest isn't to be denied.

apollo 11 (todd douglas miller, 2019)

It sounds like a straightforward documentary: using newly-found footage, Todd Douglas Miller tells a story you've seen and heard many times before, the first time a man walked on the moon. But the way he uses the footage leads to something less straightforward, and if you know the basics of the story, you haven't seen it told quite like this.

Miller uses no narration. As with the new footage, he has unearthed audio that was previously unavailable, and he edits everything together to give us the Apollo 11 trip as if it were new. The lack of narration means there is nothing to tell us what we're seeing, which results in a movie that feels like we're back in 1969. If you were alive then, you will recall the wonder you felt when the mission was happening. If you're younger, you can get that feeling for the first time. Either way, Apollo 11 is less about facts and figures and more about how the trip affected people at the time.

Sometimes, Miller uses multiple angles to present imagery that seems brand new. When the lunar lander returns to dock in space with the orbiting space capsule, we see what the camera in the lander sees, while also seeing what the capsule sees. If it were done in a studio, you'd be impressed at the combination of the two. Knowing that it is real-time footage means you're impressed that they managed to come together at all.

I was ready to accept a poor image ... it's 50 years old, and footage from the moon has never looked good. But Miller applies modern techniques to make everything look so much better than you remember, and it's especially beautiful compared to what you've seen before.

marriage story (noah baumbach, 2019)

I'm gradually coming around on Noah Baumbach. For too long, I thought of him as that Wes Anderson guy, which is unfair because 1) he hasn't worked with Anderson all that often, and 2) I'm not much of an Anderson fan and that's not Baumbach's fault. Marriage Story is the fourth movie I've seen directed by Baumbach (I didn't care for Margot at the Wedding, but liked The Squid and the Whale and especially Frances Ha), and I think it's the best of the four.

I've seen Marriage Story described as a love story that uses a divorce to tell its story, which if nothing else makes the title in the running for Irony of the Year. Yes, Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) are in love, or were. And I can see that we're supposed to experience the realities of the marriage through the lens of the couple breaking up. But Baumbach, who also wrote the script, is so good at showing what's wrong with Charlie and Nicole as a couple that, for me, it overwhelms the good times they enjoyed. This is one reason it's such a good movie, but it can be excruciating to watch. I constantly thought about how lucky I am to have avoided divorce, because based on this movie, divorce sucks.

It is not surprising that the film builds to a big Oscar-bait scene where Driver and Johansson give us Charlie and Nicole at their most vicious to each other. It's heartbreaking, and the actors are great. But it's almost unbearable. (It also reminded me of a similar all-out fight in Before Midnight, but in that film, we had two-and-a-half films to get to know the characters, while in Marriage Story, we only get two hours, so the fight in Before Midnight hurts more.)

The cast helps, as well. I'm a Scarlett Johansson fan, and Marriage Story is one of her best (over all of them, though, I'm still partial to Ghost World). I've liked every non-Kylo Red movie Adam Driver has been in, and it's good to see him in a leading role. Laura Dern is a potential Oscar nominee, Ray Liotta is Ray Liotta, and Merritt Wever is incapable of a bad performance.

geezer cinema: star wars: episode IX - the rise of skywalker (j.j. abrams, 2019)

This should be quick. I am not the audience for Star Wars movies, and my take is largely irrelevant to anyone who loves the franchise. I've seen them all, but only once in most cases, and never remember who is who ... I forgot who the Sith were, and I never remember who is related to who.

The Rise of Skywalker struck me as a present for hardcore fans. I could be wrong, and I'm not sure how hardcore fans have embraced this one. What's important here is that I didn't get the present ... it wasn't for me. I kinda wish I was a hardcore fan, for it must be great to have new Star Wars movies to look forward to.

I liked The Rise of Skywalker while I was watching it. If the 142 minutes didn't exactly breeze by, neither was it boring. I thought it was nice that Daisy Ridley and Adam Driver were actually given characters with depth ... they weren't just icons in an epic ... and both actors delivered. On the other hand, unless it was meant as a joke, I wondered why they hired Keri Russell, a great actress with striking good looks, and covered her face with a helmet for the entire movie. (It admittedly was a pretty cool helmet.)

As for the action scenes, people who are used to CGI and love it ... and I know at this point that is probably most people, and that I'm showing my age ... don't get bothered by the same things that I find unfortunate. As with pretty much every action movie since Fury Road, I kept going back to that movie and finding The Rise of Skywalker falling short. But again, these are taste preferences. So take all of this with a grain of salt. I did like the moment when all of the good guys in their ships assembled to help save the day ... you knew it was coming, but that didn't stop it from being rousing. And the last line of the movie might have been predictable, but it was appropriate, even necessary.

I didn't think this movie stunk, but it fell into the category of "not as good as IV and V but better than I and II."

the irishman (martin scorsese, 2019)

Much attention has been paid to Scorsese's use of CGI to allow his elderly stars to play younger versions of themselves, and he gets credit for using this not as a stunt but in an attempt to make a better movie. Matt Zoller Seitz argues that the CGI isn't particularly convincing, "but if you decide it doesn’t matter, it doesn’t matter." The icon status of the main actors does matter, and the movie is better with De Niro et al as themselves than it would be with less iconic actors playing in the flashback scenes.

Scorsese is returning to the gangsters he has obsessed about throughout his career, which makes The Irishman a bit retrograde. But the tone is autumnal, which separates it from something like Mean Streets (still his best film). Scorsese is looking back, just like Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) does throughout the film.

Just by casting stars from his earlier movies, Scorsese invites us to make comparisons. And those comparisons remind us how far we have all come ... at least, we're all older. It's not clear if Scorsese's attitude towards his characters has changed as much as CGI makes the actors change.

The cast does wonders. Robert De Niro doesn't suck, which is always a possibility in his later years. Al Pacino modulates his usual bluster ... it comes out when appropriate, not constantly. Joe Pesci is the biggest surprise. The man known for over-the-top tantrums plays it low-key here. He convinces us of his power, even as he refuses to over-emote. Meanwhile, Anna Paquin is amazing as Sheeran's daughter. She purposely doesn't have many lines ... Scorsese counted on her to be able to express her thoughts and emotions on her face, and the result is a condemnation of her father that is more powerful than words. The complaints that she doesn't have enough lines are misguided. (The general complaints about the superfluous nature of the women characters, on the other hand, are sadly on target.)

By the end of their lives, these characters can barely move for being so old. They are stripped of the glamour that filmmakers like Scorsese have always given them. In that sense, Scorsese is growing older, too. And with the realization that Paquin's daughter is right, that Frank Sheeran is ultimately an empty vessel with no real positive attributes, Scorsese reaches a point he doesn't often go after. The last half hour or so of The Irishman can even be read as Scorsese's admission, at long last, that his and our fascination with this milieu is based on an attraction to a false iconography. The script is based on a book by Charles Brandt whose veracity has been challenged. Even as he is dying, it seems, Frank is trying to take credit for things he did and didn't do, thinking that those things bring him glory.

Finally, editor Thelma Schoonmaker deserves special attention. She just turned 80, so she fits right in with this production. I love one of her most famous quotes, when asked how a nice lady like her could work on all those violent Scorsese movies. "Ah, but they aren't violent until I've edited them."

Top 7 Scorsese Movies

parasite (charles band, 1982)

After a two-week break, we return to "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 16 is called "The Future Was Then Week":

To quote the late, great Phillip J. Fry, "time makes fools of us all." And never is that more the case for this set of movies we got here. At once considered futuristic, these films now lie in the odd limbo of being both in the future (from the time of its release) AND the past (as of now). Take a look and see where these filmmakers were spot-on about the future, and where they way, way off.

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen film set in the "future". My Films with Past Futures list might help.

An awful piece of junk, although I need to cut it a little slack. It was made in 3D, and I was watching it in 2D on my TV. At times, I could see what they were trying to do, not just with the usual stuff jumping at us from the screen, but also by the use of space in ways that likely looked pretty good in 3D. Also, the version on Amazon was reframed from the original 2.35:1, and you could tell. In other words, nothing about how I watched the movie did it any favors.

But still, it sucked, an odd melange of Alien and Road Warrior, which came out not too long before Parasite. There was little attempt to create a world ... just a parasitic being invading people's bodies. It was a post-apocalyptic story, but that fact was rarely mentioned.

Some recognizable names participated. It was the second feature for Demi Moore. It was the third feature directed by Charles Band, who has a bit of a cult following. The cast included Cherie Currie from The Runaways, cheapie legend Cheryl "Rainbeaux" Smith for the scene of a topless woman, and musical legend Vivian Blaine from Guys and Dolls. Best of all was future four-time Oscar winner Stan Winston creating the effects for the parasites.

Finally, a trivia note: on a "Spill Your Guts or Fill Your Guts" segment on James Corden's show last October, Demi Moore said this was the worst movie she'd ever been in.

film fatales #71: 35 shots of rum (claire denis, 2009)

Claire Denis (White Material) co-wrote and directed this film about four people who live in the same apartment building in Paris. I wouldn't say that Denis tells a story ... it's not that nothing happens, it's that she is interested in other things. As I wrote about White Material, "She doesn't bother too much with clarifying events for the viewer … she does not force-feed us as if we were stupid. It helps to let the movie wash over you, without attempting to impose your own structure. Eventually, the film becomes a whole ... Denis isn't as concerned with 'what happens' in a concrete sense; she wants to explore the inner perspectives of her main character ... It’s very idiosyncratic, but in a way that draws viewers in."

The same could be said for 35 Shots of Rum, which is a bit of an homage to Ozu's Late Spring, in that both concern a father and his young daughter trying to manage their lives together as the woman reaches the age when she could be striking out on her own. Denis takes her time. The relationships of the four people gradually become more clear (besides the father and daughter, there is a middle-aged women who once had an affair with the father and still carries a torch for him, and a young man with an eye on the daughter), but much of the emotional impact advances in subtle ways. They live relatively quiet lives, and what we see is mostly matter of fact. Much of what we learn about the people comes in quiet scenes that are sidelines to what was "really" supposed to happen. In a longish set piece, the four set out together for a concert. They never make it, but they do all end up in a restaurant, where little is said but small glances tell us a lot.

The father and his old flame dance together. The young people talk. Another couple starts to dance. The father switches to dance with his daughter. The young man cuts in. He kisses the daughter ... her reaction is uncertain. The father sees the kiss. He then dances with the restaurant owner as the old flame watches. Finally, they are all on a train back home ... all but the father, who we realize has stayed behind with the owner. None of this is blatant. Denis makes good use of The Commodores' "Nightshift":

The underplaying by the entire cast is perfect for what Denis is doing here. If you think nothing happens in the above scene, then 35 Shots of Rum is probably not for you. If you find the interactions fascinating, though, you will love this movie. #113 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century. (Here is a letterboxd list of Film Fatales movies.)

geezer cinema/film fatales #70: little women (greta gerwig, 2019)

Greta Gerwig's followup to Lady Bird shows that Gerwig hasn't lost her touch when it comes to critics. They loved Lady Bird, and now they love Little Women. (Little Women has a Metacritic score of 91/100, while Lady Bird's was 94.) Those scores are well-deserved ... Gerwig directs with a confidence that belies the fact that she is relatively new to directing.

Lady Bird was strongly autobiographical, and part of what Gerwig (who also wrote the screenplay) does with Little Women is turn a well-known, classic story into a backdoor version of autobiography. Jo, the central character, a writer, is played by Saoirse Ronan, who was also the lead in the earlier movie, and in this version of the story, Jo's attempt to make art out of the lives of her and her sisters results in a novel, Little Women, written by Jo. To a certain extent, Gerwig sidesteps Louisa May Alcott.

Ronan is excellent, as are all of the actors playing sisters: Emma Watson as Meg, Florence Pugh as Amy, and Eliza Scanlen as Beth. The grown ups are played by a fine who's who of venerable actors: Laura Dern, Tracy Letts, Bob Odenkirk, Chris Cooper. Meryl Streep is even tolerable as Aunt March. And Gerwig does a beautiful job of showing the closeness of the sisters without being too sappy.

What is missing in all of these performances, though, is the quirkiness that Gerwig brings to her own acting. (Richard Brody brings up a lot of these points in his piece, "The Compromises of Greta Gerwig’s 'Little Women'".) Both Lady Bird and Little Women are intelligent and stylish films, but neither shows the goofy freedom of Gerwig in my favorite scene of hers, from Frances Ha:

As a director, Gerwig hints at this freedom, and these movies are both quite good as is. But if Gerwig ever writes/directs an entire movie like that dance in Frances Ha, it will be magnificent. It might look something like this:

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)