us (jordan peele, 2019)

Jordan Peele surprised us all with his first directorial effort, Get Out. It was terrific, it was inventive, and it came from a man best known for sketch comedy. Get Out was so good, Peele lost any chance of ever surprising us in the same way again. Now we expect his movies to be good.

Us makes Peele two-for-two. Apparently Peele set out to make a straight horror film. Of course, Us is not just a straight horror film. And to the extent it is a horror film, it's a kitchen sink of horror. Peele piles it on: zombie apocalypse, home invasion, childhood terrors come back to haunt us. It also has its hilarious moments ... Peele can't seem to resist. (My favorite: when the family under attack tells their Alexa-thing to call the police, and it replied, "OK. Playing "Fuck the Police" by N.W.A.")

Peele doesn't get explicit with his social commentary here, which won't stop people from trying to find it. (This was much easier in Get Out, which was more obvious.) In fact, there is a certain vagueness to Us, and that actually makes it creepier ... the unexplained becomes frightening. In some ways, it is similar to Parasite, which was also a take on home invasions, only there, the invaders were the nominal "good guys". Parasite made its class consciousness unavoidable ... you couldn't miss it if you tried. Peele sneaks it in.

The entire film is uplifting by the incredible performance of Lupita Nyong'o. She is completely believable as both dopplegangers of her character. We see their connection, yet also experience them as separate. #653 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century.

Finally, I had a couple of personal connections to the movie. For one thing, it takes place mostly in and near Santa Cruz. I lived in the area once, and my wife and I go there every year to celebrate our anniversary. (During the prologue, which takes place in 1986, she said, "Just think, we'd only been married 13 years then!") And there's the use of "I Got 5 on It". The song was a pretty big hit in its day, and it was unavoidable in the Bay Area. But we knew it from the "Bay Ballas Remix". Honestly, I didn't know there was an "original" for the longest time.

the passenger (michelangelo antonioni, 1975)

What am I to do with Antonioni? L'Avventura remains one of my very favorite films. I liked the rest of the "trilogy" (La Notte and L'Eclisse) without loving them. Same for Blow-Up. Thought Red Desert was a drop-off from the trilogy, and found Zabriskie Point pretty awful. I long ago gave up hoping for another L'Avventura ... I just look for something I could at least like.

Well, I don't know if "like" is the word for The Passenger, for it is one of those movies that aren't exactly begging to be liked. Appreciated, yes. Respected, sure. But Antonioni plays with our expectations. He's got Jack Nicholson in the same year Jack won his first Oscar for Cuckoo's Nest, which featured his vibrant energy, and he forces Nicholson into a quieter character with a different kind of antagonism. Appropriately, it should be mentioned ... Nicholson is one of the best things about the movie.

Nicholson plays a journalist, Locke, who exchanges identities with a dead man, Robertson. Almost gets away with it, too. But you can't get much more existential than a man who escapes from his own skin, who doesn't want to be "himself" any more ... and it's significant that the dead man is almost accidental. Locke might not even have known he wanted out of his own life until the opportunity to change presented itself. Unfortunately, it turns out Robertson is a gun-runner, giving Locke more excitement than he was asking for.

Maria Schneider is around as a woman who takes part in Locke/Robertson's adventures. There's something off about her performance, which might be explained by this note from the IMDB: "Maria Schneider was suffering from excruciating back pain during filming, and would often be in a medicated muddle towards the end of the day when her pain medications kicked in. In one scene, Jack Nicholson had to physically prop her up." One sympathizes, but as I say, her performance is missing something.

It is one of the great mysteries of my movie-going life that I am so willing to rave about L'Avventura, with its ironic title, yet am generally resistant to Antonioni's other movies, in which, like with my favorite, "nothing happens". The Passenger fits right in ... there is the barest sketch of a plot, but I doubt The Maestro cared. (And this is when I trot out my oft-told anecdote about a friend who spent time with Antonioni ... my friend said people addressed the great director as "Maestro". Whether this was true, I can verify that my friend had both Antonioni and Monica Vitti in his address book, and this was long before email.)

I don't know why, but at this moment, I'm thinking more kindly of The Passenger than I am for his other non-Adventure movies.

And there's this famous penultimate shot, which is The Passenger in a nutshell: it's one of the most beautiful shots ever, it's hard to figure out how it was done, but while it's happening, a crucial plot point occurs off screen and we never find out what that plot point was. (The image is poor in this YouTube clip, which is sad. The Director of Photography was Luciano Tovoli.)

A sidenote: much of the film takes place in Andalucía, where my wife and I were going to vacation before the Virus changed everyone's plans. #144 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time.

by request: echo in the canyon (andrew slater, 2018)

Fiona Apple. The Beach Boys. Beck. Justine Bennett. Jackson Browne. Buffalo Springfield. The Byrds. Jade Castrinos. Eric Clapton. David Crosby. Jakob Dylan. Norah Jones. The Mamas and the Papas. Roger McGuinn. Graham Nash. Fernando Perdomo. Tom Petty. Michelle Phillips. Cat Power. John Sebastian. Regina Spektor. Ringo Starr. Stephen Stills. Matt Tecu. Brian Wilson.

That's an impressive list of artists. If you knew there was a movie featuring these performers in archival footage, with new material (including Tom Petty's last interview), and some younger artists performing songs from the originals in a special concert, and you like most or all of the above, you'd be right in thinking Echo in the Canyon must be a great movie, or at least, enjoyable for fans of mid-60s folk-rock out of LA. And yes, for an hour-and-a-half, it's enjoyable.

But it is also frustrating. As is too often the case in documentaries like this, too many songs are presented piecemeal. I might have preferred a straightforward documentation of the concert ... at least I could appreciate the performances.

The interview segments are of varying interest. Petty's last interview is great, Michelle Phillips is a delight, and David Crosby is helplessly honest (he admits he was kicked out of The Byrds because he was an asshole). Ringo's dry humor is always welcome. But there is also an odd interview interspersed throughout, where Dylan sits around on a couch with Cat Power, Beck, and Regina Spektor, and they stare at old album covers while saying the equivalent of "wow, groovy". All of those people are interesting artists, but here they are mostly dolts. Meanwhile, Dylan is such a low-key interviewer that he disappears, although in fairness that may be one reason the artists felt comfortable during the interviews.

And, as many have pointed out, there is no mention of The Doors, or Joni Mitchell, or Love (although an Arthur Lee song appears on the soundtrack album).

Oddest of all, there are clips from the Jacques Demy film Model Shop, with many of the old-timers talking about how important the movie was in showing what the Canyon was like in those days. They speak as if the film was contemporaneous with the music featured in the film, but the movie came out in 1969, while the music we see was rather specifically from the mid-60s. Buffalo Springfield broke up in 1968, The Mamas and the Papas were about to disband, Pet Sounds was 1966. They might have liked Model Shop, but that movie had nothing to do with the music we are learning about (and the movie featured the music of Spirit, who are nowhere in the film).

There are some solid performances ... big-voiced singer Jade Castrinos' effervescence is contagious. By all means, see the movie if you are a fan of mid-60s LA folk-rock. But despite its pleasures, Echo in the Canyon feels like a missed opportunity.

fear of a black hat (rusty cundieff, 1993)

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 26 is called "Rock It or Mock It Week".

"Oh yeah, well, I'll make my own documentary, with rock music and comedy! In fact, forget the documentary!"

-Bender Bending Rodriguez, probably.
(That's right, another Futurama reference, I can't be stopped.)

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen rockumentary or mockumentary film.

Fear of a Black Hat has two movie reference points. This Is Spinal Tap established the music mockmentary genre, and CB4 (which came out the same year as Black Hat) applied it to rap music. I've always thought Spinal Tap was funnier in concept than in execution, although it has some iconic scenes. It's been a long time since I saw CB4, and all I remember is that it was weak but had one song I found hilarious:

Fear of a Black Hat has more good parodies, some of them fairly subtle. Because of this, I suspect it plays better to fans of early-90s rap, because that's where their targets come from. Does it matter if you know that "I'm Just a Human Being" is inspired by P.M. Dawn? Does anyone still know P.M. Dawn? Here's the Black Hat Version:

When I doo-doo is my shit not brown
It's a universal thing we all flush it down
And when you wipe do you look at the tissue
Most folks do, it ain't even an issue
Hot stuff makes it burn comin out
I bet everyone knows what I'm talkin about
'Cause we are all one race on this planet
We all burp and fart, and that's the way God planned it
So don't act like you're superior
Eat something bad an just like me you'll get diarrhea
'Cause black, white, yellow, red, brown or gold
Our shit all comes from the same little hole
You are just like me
I'm just a human

Like other modern comedies, Fear of a Black Hat is hilarious at its best, dead on arrival at its worst. Kasi Lemmons is in the cast ... she later directed Eve's Bayou.

Here's P.M. Dawn, for comparison purposes:

geezer cinema: revisiting contagion (steven soderberg, 2011)

Every week since my wife retired, we have gone to the movies for what we call "Geezer Cinema". The movies aren't necessarily for geezers, but we are geezers, and we've found that if you go to a theater for the Tuesday at 1:10 PM showing of a movie, the few other people in the audience are geezers, as well. We have now seen 33 movies in this adventure:

Letterboxd Geezer Cinema List

Times are changing every day right now. Where we live, a "shelter at home" order has been passed ... we aren't supposed to go out except for emergencies. Movies don't qualify, and in fact, theaters have closed, anyway. So we can't go to the movies, but we wanted to continue the Geezer Cinema tradition, even though one reason we thought it up in the first place was so we'd get out of the house.

It was my wife's turn to pick, and she chose a movie a lot of people are watching right now: Contagion. Because we were at home, the movie wasn't new ... hey, you do what you can. It does mean I finish the rest of this post fairly easily, because I wrote about it back in 2012. Having watched it again, I don't think I'd change anything, so here it was/is, via the magic of cut-and-paste:

Contagion (Steven Soderbergh, 2011). An odd movie, mostly because it’s not very odd at all. It’s a thriller about a fast-spreading virus, but the action is presented in a matter-of-fact manner that quiets the thrills. It seems ripe for philosophical interludes (I am, after all, the person whose favorite book is The Plague by Albert Camus), but it sidesteps them. It’s got an all-star cast, with three Best Actress Oscar winners and a bunch of guys who have won or been nominated for Oscars of their own, yet it treats them all as actors first and movie stars second. The low-key nature of the film is nice, considering how many similar films crank up the cheap emotion and show lots of things blowing up. And it’s not overlong, and it’s never boring. But neither is it ever great.

police story (jackie chan, 1985)

This is Jackie Chan's favorite of his many movies, and it always turns up on lists of the greatest Jackie movies ... hell, the greatest HK action movies of all time. It is among my favorites, as well, although when I made my Top 50 list some years ago, it was Supercop (Police Story 3) that made the list. I also have a soft spot in my heart for Armour of God 2: Operation Condor, which is admittedly inconsistent and even occasionally awful, but which finishes with a colossal wind tunnel scene.

Police Story features two of Chan's best set pieces, a battle in a town that starts the film, and arguably his greatest scene, an extensive fight in a mall. There is enough between those two iconic scenes to keep your interest, but no more than that ... as great as Chan is (and he is one of the true GOATs), I don't know if he's ever made a perfect movie (his comedy works great in the action scenes, when he truly is the Buster Keaton of his day, but it is less effective outside of those scenes). There was an odd video store back in the day in Berkeley ... this was before DVDs, so everything was VHS, the owner was a wonderful snaggle-toothed guy, and every morning they put a life size replica of Robot Monster outside the front door ... they had this one tape that was nothing but 8 hours of Jackie Chan stunts.

On the plus side, Police Story features Brigitte Lin, who is not only supremely talented but who was, in the years when I watched a couple of HK films a week, my choice for most beautiful Hong Kong actor (her, or Tony Leung). On the minus side, it also has Maggie Cheung, whose character (Jackie's girlfriend) also turns up in the next two sequels. Cheung is usually marvelous ... she co-stars with Leung in In the Mood for Love, which still gets my vote as the best film of the 21st century ... but her character in the Police Story movies is a pain in the ass, unworthy of her (in fairness, in 1985 she was barely 21 and had been in only a few movies).

Still, if you start with a great action sequence, and you end with an even greater action sequence, you can forgive a lot of the rest.

Here is the mall scene. At the end, when Jackie slides down the pole, the lights were hot, resulting in second-degree burns for Chan (he also dislocated his back and injured his pelvis). Note that Brigitte Lin did some of her own stunts. And you can see why the stunt crew referred to this film as "Glass Story".

Here is Chan talking about the final stunt:

hour of the wolf (ingmar bergman, 1968)

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 25 is called "1,001 Films to Watch Before You Die Week".

Maybe the most well known film reference book widely available for consumer purchase, 1,001 Films to Watch Before You Die is a yearly publication showcasing a selection of 1,001 films with essays and contributions by 70+ film critics. If you're a fan of film, you've most likely come across at least one edition of these books over the years, and maybe even flipped through one at one point or another. Now, the list I've linked uses the 2018 version of the book, and that's the version that will be used for this challenge, but if there's a 2019 version that is released after this Season Challenge is published, you are free to watch a film from that list, even if it didn't appear on the 2018 version.

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen film from the 2018 edition of the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die.

Max von Sydow died last week, so I chose one of his movies for this challenge.

David Lynch loved Hour of the Wolf. If you've seen his movies, and you see Hour of the Wolf, you'll understand his feelings. Hour of the Wolf is beautiful to look at (Bergman's usual contributor Sven Nykvist was the cinematographer). It focuses on intense psychological profiles that are rarely concrete, allowing the viewer to interpret what we are seeing both in real time, and when we look back on the film. There is plenty to talk about.

And its meaning are insular. Bergman drew on his own nightmares ... when Max von Sydow's artist Johan has terrifying visions, they have at times direct connections to things Bergman has experienced. This gives them that inscrutable, uneasy terror of the worst nightmares. They don't have to "mean" anything. But it feels like Bergman knows what they "mean".

Liv Ullmann, who is the best thing about the movie, said "she had little understanding of the subject matter during production, but recognized Bergman's traits in von Sydow's character." She knew Bergman intimately. The audience does not, so we can't really recognize Bergman, other than knowing Johan "is" Bergman.

So Hour of the Wolf becomes an example of Your Mileage May Vary. I found it intriguing, it was never boring, Liv Ullmann was excellent, and it was over in an hour-and-a-half. If it matches your taste preferences, you might agree that it has earned its spot at #485 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time. For me, it does not reach the heights of The Seventh Seal (another Bergman/von Sydow collaboration).

Here is one of the best scenes in the movie. This is not the best print ... don't judge Sven Nykvist!

geezer cinema/film fatales #79: emma. (autumn de wilde, 2020)

Sometimes a movie can be wonderful even if it is far from perfect. For me, the key is often acting. A great performance makes up for a lot, and a great ensemble is even better.

Emma. is a good movie ... I don't mean to suggest otherwise. Director Autumn de Wilde, with her first feature, and screenwriter Eleanor Catton (also her feature debut), make the old recognizable. They take great care to make their movie seem real to the time of Jane Austen's novel, but while doing that, they also make us feel as if Emma and her friends and family are people we know right now. It's not just a period piece, no matter how well they recreate the period.

But in the end, it's the acting that raises Emma. above the norm. I often say, if there are many good performances in a film, the director must get at least some of the credit, and so de Wilde deserves mention here, as well. I only recognized a few of the actors ... Gemma Whelan was Yara Greyjoy in Game of Thrones, and Bill Nighy ... well, I would say he can make anything good, but even he couldn't rescue the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. Still, I love me some Bill Nighy.

I save my most fervent praise for two of the actresses, again unknown to me. Mia Goth (what a marvelous name for an actor) is quite winning as Emma's best friend Harriet. Goth has a way of smiling that jumps off the screen; you feel her happiness. Goth also has an advantage, in that Harriet is largely likable from beginning to end, so once we become attached to her smile, she has us in her grasp.

Even more impressive is Anya Taylor-Joy as the title character. She has remarkable eyes ... if Goth's smile is entrancing, Taylor-Joy's eyes take over the screen. More importantly, Emma is a complicated character, and between de Wilde, Catton, Austen, and Taylor-Joy, we see all of Emma's sides. She is not particularly lovable. She screws up and doesn't always seem to notice. It would be fairly easy to make Emma into something of a villain. But at the same time, Taylor-Joy makes us root for Emma. So when Emma gets her comeuppance, it is satisfying. But when she gets the true love happy ending, we're glad for her nonetheless. Emma isn't one thing or another, she's all things.

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

(And here is a letterboxd list of Geezer Cinema movies.)

they shall not grow old (peter jackson, 2018)

Perhaps the most impressive thing Peter Jackson accomplishes in this movie is to make it more than just a stunt. Where often something offbeat seems to exist just to show off, Jackson always had in mind a story about soldiers in World War I. They Shall Not Grow Old isn't there to make us amazed at the technical skill ... Jackson puts that skill to use in telling his story the best way possible.

For those who aren't aware of this film, Jackson used a hundred hours of old black-and-white footage, worked his way through hundreds of hours of interviews with soldiers, cleaned up the footage and then colorized it, and put it all together to give us a World War I we have never seen before.

It works as you would expect. The soldiers are more real to us, the war is more real, everything is more real than in a fictional film with actors. But the experience of watching They Shall Not Grow Old overwhelms your expectations. You know it will work, but you can't really be prepared for how much we are drawn in.

Jackson isn't trying to make a history of the war. He has access to footage of British soldiers, so that's who we see. He gives us the trees in the forest ... the movie is less about World War I, and more about how it felt to the soldiers in that war. You wouldn't come here to learn all about World War I. But Jackson gives us a deeper understanding of the lives of the soldiers who were fighting.

Peter Jackson's career is hard to believe. He started with splatter films. Then came Heavenly Creatures with Kate Winslet and Melanie Lynskey, the screenplay for which was nominated for an Oscar. After that, the Lord of the Rings trilogy. They Shall Not Grow Old doesn't seem to fit with any of these, but at this point, it's enough to just accept that Jackson has a lot of films he wants to make.

international women's day: film fatales #78: the edge of seventeen (kelly fremon craig, 2016)

The idea was to watch a movie directed by a woman for International Women's Day, and The Edge of Seventeen has been sitting on my DVR for far too long, so it was the winner.

First, to get what I thought was an obvious point out of the way, this movie has nothing to do with the Stevie Nicks song. It's a coming of age story, originally titled "Besties", not only directed by first-timer Craig but written by her as well. It begins as a story about two best friends, but something happens to split them apart, and it becomes more a story of one of the two, Nadine, played by Hailee Steinfeld. She is troubled, she is self-absorbed, she is a smart-ass ... standard stuff for a teenager growing up. And The Edge of Seventeen doesn't exactly break new ground in that genre.

But certain things raise it a bit above the norm. Steinfeld is great ... well, Nadine is a great character, so credit Steinfeld, but also credit Craig for writing the character. Most of the people in the movie turn out to have more depth than seems evident at first, and that's nice ... the perfect older brother has problems, too, the seemingly lazy teacher actually cares about his students (at least, he cares about Nadine), Nadine's mom, as played by Kyra Sedgwick, annoys both Nadine and the audience, but there is more to her as well. We root for Nadine, even though Craig/Steinfeld are not afraid to show her lesser sides. It's all recognizable to anyone who went to high school in the U.S., and mostly avoids too many stereotypes.

As is often the case in teenage movies, many of the actors are clearly older than the characters they play. Steinfeld was 19-20 (irrelevant trivia: her uncle is the Body by Jake guy), Haley Lu Richardson, who plays the bestie, was 20, older brother Blake Jenner was 24, potential Nadine's boyfriend Hayden Szeto was  30-31. It's not as bad as some, but it is noticeable, and requires at least a little suspension of disbelief.

There is nothing wrong with The Edge of Seventeen, and Steinfeld is a big plus. The movie is worth a look.

Here is the student film Nadine's boyfriend made ... the actual animation was by David Silverman:

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