african-american directors series: devil in a blue dress (carl franklin, 1995)

This is the seventeenth film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2022-23", "A 33 week long challenge where the goal each week is to watch a previously unseen feature length film from a specified category." This is the 8th annual challenge, and my fourth time participating (my first year can be found at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20", the second year at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2020-21", and last year at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2021-22"). Week 17 is called "LA Films Week":

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen LA film.

Carl Franklin has had an interesting career. He grew up in Richmond, California, went to Cal, and as an actor appeared as a regular in many TV series. Then in 1986, he enrolled at the AFI Conservatory, got a Master's Degree, and went to work directing films for Roger Corman. Then, in 1992, came a terrific movie, One False Move, followed by Devil in a Blue Dress. The sky would seem to have been the limit. Franklin has always worked, but he only directed four features after Devil, moving instead to television, where he has directed episodes of some of the top series of the era.

Devil in a Blue Dress was based on the first book in the Easy Rawlins series by Walter Mosley. Mosley has become a highly-acclaimed author, and his Easy Rawlins books now number more than a dozen. Lead actor Denzel Washington already had an Oscar (and another nomination). It's clear from the final scene of the film that the door was left open for a series of Easy Rawlins movies. But Devil in a Blue Dress is still the only time Rawlins has appeared on the screen. The film was a critical success, but it flopped at the box office. Denzel has remained one of our best actors, but the only film series he makes is the mediocre Equalizer movies.

Devil in a Blue Dress has a lot going for it besides Denzel. Don Cheadle gets his first big role and steals all of his scenes. Franklin and crew do a great job of creating Los Angeles in 1948. Cinematographer Tak Fujimoto's work is impeccable. And Franklin (and Mosely) shows how racial relations are ever-present, as Rawlins steps around the charged atmosphere of a time and place where white people have the power. Devil in a Blue Dress works on all of these levels. It's a shame it didn't resonate with a big enough audience at the time.

geezer cinema: plane (jean-françois richet, 2023)

Truth in advertising: this movie features a plane.

It's my first film from Jean-François Richet, about whom I know nothing. (His bio on the IMDB is only two sentences long, and tells us his birthdate and lists a few of his movies.) I've seen half-a-dozen Gerard Butler movies, and Plane is a bit better than the norm. It's always nice to see Mike Colter and Paul Ben-Victor, and Daniella Pineda does Oakland proud. A lot of times, action movies like this are by-the-numbers dull, but Richet manages to keep things going for a nice economical 107 minutes. There's nothing new here, but it's all as efficient as its title. The evil rebel Filipinos are unfortunately crazed stereotypes in the manner of the Somali pirates in Captain Phillips, which I guess is supposed to be countered with the diversity of the good guys in the movie (a Scotsman, an African-American, a co-pilot from Hong Kong, a Mexican-American woman from Oakland, etc.). It's a nothing movie that delivers what it promises and leaves out the rest, which is rarer than it should be. And it's my first film from 2023.

platform (jia shangke, 2000)

This is my first film from director Jia Shangke, another entry in the It's About Time department. Platform was Jia's second feature, made when he was 30 ... he is considered a leading light in the Chinese "Sixth Generation" school of films.

While there was much to appreciate in Platform, I felt like I was only scratching the surface. Clearly, Jia is commenting both on the 1980s, when the film mostly takes place, and 2000, when the film was released, but I don't have enough context to pick up on subtleties. What is left is a good, if long, look at 20-somethings as they interact with each other and experience the changes in Chinese society. The focus is on a theater troupe whose repertoire seems to focus on things The Party would approve of. As time progresses, the troupe becomes more pop, but again, my lack of context means I noticed this without being able to know the implications of much of the situation.

The main characters are played by Wang Hongwei and Zhao Tao, both of whom have worked frequently with Jia. (Zhao is married to Jia.) Jia often uses stationary camerawork, but the compositions are effective, and there is enough movement to prevent a static look.

I liked Platform; I just wanted to get it enough to love it. #376 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time, #36 on the 21st-century list.

Here is the opening scene:

the killing of satan (efren c. piñon, 1983)

This is the sixteenth film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2022-23", "A 33 week long challenge where the goal each week is to watch a previously unseen feature length film from a specified category." This is the 8th annual challenge, and my fourth time participating (my first year can be found at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20", the second year at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2020-21", and last year at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2021-22"). Week 16 is called "Southeastern Asia Week":

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen film from a Southeastern Asian country. This list should help.

There are some good movies on that list. I can't use things I've already seen, but The Raid is terrific, and I've liked every film I've seen by Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul, who god bless him has said it's OK to call him "Joe". Back in September when the Challenge came out, I picked a Thai film that was on the Criterion Channel for this week. Four months later, I go to watch the movie and find it's no longer available. So I had to quickly hunt down something else that I could stream. Which is how I found myself watching the Filipino horror fantasy, The Killing of Satan.

Oh my, it was bad. Scott Drebit described it perfectly when he called it, "epic in scope and minuscule in execution". Epic? It's about the battle of good and evil, with the actual Satan competing for the bad side. Minuscule? At times, I was reminded of Robot Monster, where the entire movie seemed to take place in the same section of Bronson Canyon. The characters in The Killing of Satan would go into caves, spend time underground (apparently next door to Hell), escape, and somehow, they always ended up in the same place.

The movie is full of action. But it's bad action. The fight scenes are a blend of boxing-style fisticuffs and cheap FX. This is not a martial arts movie, it's a movie where people with supernatural powers try to beat the crap out of each other while dodging some of those cheap special effects. There is no imagination in these scenes. It almost made me pine for the oddball hopping vampires of HK films. There's a plot, but everything is so ragged it's as if Jean-Luc Godard popped by long enough to tell everyone to ignore continuity.

As is often the case with movies this bad, it's the accompanying trivia that interests us, and here we are blessed with the star of the film, Ramon Revilla. In 1992, almost a decade after he made The Killing of Satan, Revilla became a Senator in the Philippines, where he served two terms. Wikipedia tells us that one of his bills in the Senate states "The illegitimate children may use the surname of their father if their affiliation has been expressly recognized by the father through the record of birth appearing in the civil register, or when an admission in a public document or private handwritten instrument is made by the father." In a perhaps unrelated note, depending on the source, Revilla fathered somewhere between 38 and 72 children.

And I watched all of this because the Criterion Channel took one of their movies off of streaming. What's worse, the only place I could find that was streaming this junk was Tubi, which meant there were two minutes of ads every 15 or so minutes, the print was shitty, the aspect ratio was wrong (at least, that's my assumption), and the dubbing wasn't any good.

Spoiler alert: this is the scene that fulfills the title. See if you can guess which one is Satan:

geezer cinema/film fatales #160: women talking (sarah polley, 2022)

Writer/director Sarah Polley has only made four features, starting with her debut in 2006, Away from Her, but it's only in the last week or so that I have caught up with her, first by seeing Take This Waltz, and now catching her new film, Women Talking, based on a novel by Miriam Toews. Her screenplay for Away from Her was nominated for a screenplay Oscar ... she wasn't yet 30 at the time. She has written all of her films (and now she has a book as well, Run Towards the Danger, which I am reading as I type this). Before beginning her directing career, she had been acting on screen since she was six, getting a feature role in The Adventures of Baron Munchausen when she was nine, starring in two Canadian TV series, Ramona and Avonlea, for eight years, and continuing as an actor until 2010. Women Talking is her first film in ten years, and it only solidifies my opinion that she is one of our best writer/directors.

I'm not sure what identifies a "Sarah Polley Movie". Her films are intelligent, the acting is usually excellent, they are filmed (and set in) Canada. Women are at the center of her movies. The films look great (Luc Montpellier has been the cinematographer for three of the films, including Women Talking). Their movies are very different, but the director Polley brings to mind is Ryan Coogler, who also has made four films, beginning with the fine Fruitvale Station, and who has yet to disappoint (although his career has gone towards the blockbuster, having made the two Black Panther movies).

I loved Stories We Tell so much that I thought of Polley as a great director, even if I'd only seen two of her movies. So it's easy to say that I was excited about her first film in ten years. And what a film it is. We saw Women Talking with a friend who was worried about the film ... he had read and loved the book, and wondered how it could be captured on film. Afterwards, he gave a thumbs up. Polley draws together her strong cast (unfair to single out only a few, but Rooney Mara, Jessie Buckley and particularly Claire Foy are especially excellent), giving them dialogue that is quotable, if sometimes speechifying, and making each character distinct (Toews gets a lot of credit for this, of course). She turns a story that could be exploitive (the women in an isolated religious community have been systematically raped and beaten for decades) and makes the focus the women themselves ... the assaults are never far from our attention, but Polley doesn't show them endlessly. Women Talking is only partly about abuse and abusers. Polley's primary focus is on the group of women as they decide how they will continue to live their lives.

Most of the film is set in a single hayloft in a barn, and at times there is a stagy feel, as if Women Talking were based on a play. It's not intrusive, though. What does draw attention is the washed-out colors of the film, about which Polley has said,

I think once they start having this conversation in the hayloft they're already consigning the world they live into the past. It’s already done because they're having a conversation about it and how to change it. So for me, it was important that it feels like a faded postcard. That there be a sense of nostalgia and of a colorlessness. A sense that whatever it is, this world that they're talking about doesn't exist anymore because the very fact of them having the conversation is shifting that reality.

The emotionalism of the final shot of the film is reminiscent of Spielberg, showing us one more time that Sarah Polley's career as a writer/director already exists in the rare company of our finest artists.

film fatales #159: take this waltz (sarah polley, 2011)

Thought I'd check out the only Sarah Polley movie I'd missed, ahead of hopefully seeing Women Talking tomorrow. It's my least favorite of the three I've seen, which is not an insult ... I think Stories We Tell is an outright classic, and Away from Her was also very good. Take This Waltz has a lot going for it, starting with Michelle Williams, Seth Rogen, and Sarah Silverman. Polley paints a loving picture of Toronto (Luc Montpellier is the cinematographer) ... Polley idealizes Toronto, and the summer setting gives us a different Canada than we're used to (people have fans on in their homes because it's hot). The film is an effective rom-com (or better, rom-drama).

But there's one big problem, at least for me. Take This Waltz is about a married couple, Margot and Lou, still in love, but together just long enough to reveal a few empty spaces. The wife cute-meets a man who lives across the street, and much of the movie is in the will-they/won't they vein. The problem is that man, played by Luke Kirby, struck me as a creepy stalker more than a possible love partner. Williams does a great job of expressing the yearnings of her character ... I want her to find happiness. But I never wanted her to connect with this creepy guy.

I don't know who to blame. Polley, for creating the character? Kirby, for portraying the character? Me, for disliking the character? All I know is, while I understood why Margot was drifting away from Lou, she could do a lot better than Mr. Stalker Guy. (Not to mention, he works as a pedicab driver in Toronto, an excess of cute that never worked.)

mommy (xavier dolan, 2014)

Well, that was an experience. Mommy is fascinating, excruciating, honest yet extreme. It was not a comfortable movie to watch, but it's not meant to be comfortable, and it's worth the effort if you can get past the excruciating part.

Mommy takes place in Québec, and is in French. I had seen only one film by Xavier Dolan, The Death & Life of John F. Donovan, which was only OK (although it was much better than the reviews, which trashed it). Dolan was only 25 when he made Mommy, but it was already his fifth feature. I'm unfamiliar with the lead actors, although they have solid resumes ... I've just missed them. (To name them: Anne Dorval, Antoine Olivier Pilon, and Suzanne Clément.) The story sounds promising enough: a widowed mother has a teenage son with ADHD who is violent at times, and we watch as she does what she can to keep him from being institutionalized. (We get a note at the beginning of the film informing us of a fictional Canadian law that allows parents to put their troubled kids away.)

But Dolan makes a decision that right away puts us in the center of this intense family. He uses a 1:1 aspect ratio (i.e., the screen is square) and has lots of closeups, which puts us literally in the faces of the characters as they go through their at-times traumatic emotions. Think of how Sergio Leone uses closeups to fill the screen with faces. His larger-than-life wide screen compositions mean those faces are often placed in the middle of an expanse of territory. Dolan gives us the closeups, but removes the expanse. Between the aspect ratio, the intense family drama, and the excellent acting, Dolan drags us into his story, and there is no escape. It's not a horror movie ... you aren't waiting for the next jump scare. But you often want to leave the room, to let these people have their privacy.

It's almost giving too much away to mention that for a brief scene, the screen opens up. I won't spoil the occasion for the change, but it has a definite effect on the viewer.

It's unfair to single out one of the actors, but Antoine Olivier Pilon as the teen is uncanny. He makes you forget he is acting, even as he is chewing the scenery ... he feels like the person he is playing. It's not the kind of amateur performance some directors use to make a character seem "real", but Dolan and Pilon force us to see what is inside the boy, and again, it's not comfortable. #384 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century.

geezer cinema: the pale blue eye (scott cooper, 2022)

The Pale Blue Eye is a whodunit with a catch: one of the main characters is Edgar Allan Poe. That's not quite as big a deal as it might seem. You could enjoy the movie without knowing anything about Poe. But it adds something for people inclined to favor such tricks.

The plot has twists and turns, of course, but writer/director Scott Cooper takes us mostly down a straightforward path. The film is a bit slow-moving, but the whodunit angle is engrossing ... it's never boring. Christian Bale is fine in a low-key way, the supporting cast is filled with memorable people like Toby Jones and Gillian Anderson and Robert Duvall and Charlotte Gainsbourg. The look of the film is perfect (Masanobu Takayanagi is the cinematographer). You get cold just watching the chilly scenes of winter, and the visuals get dark at appropriate moments.

But then there's Harry Melling as Poe. I've seen him in several movies without being able to recall him exactly in any of them. I won't soon forget his Poe, however. Put simple, Poe is downright creepy, which is a problem in that I was never sure if the creepiness was purposeful on the part of Melling and Cooper, or if Melling was just over-using his own blue eyes. I suspect many will find it an award-winning performance, but I was distracted every time Melling appeared, which was a lot ... he was playing Edgar Allan Poe, after all.

killer's kiss (stanley kubrick, 1955)

This is the fifteenth film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2022-23", "A 33 week long challenge where the goal each week is to watch a previously unseen feature length film from a specified category." This is the 8th annual challenge, and my fourth time participating (my first year can be found at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20", the second year at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2020-21", and last year at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2021-22"). Week 15 is called "No Ball Sports Week":

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen film about a sport that does not use a ball.

Almost the entire item of interest in Killer's Kiss is the name Stanley Kubrick. It's a low-budget ($70,000+) movie about a boxer (sport that does not use a ball). It's nothing special ... Kubrick has enough talent and skill that Killer's Kiss isn't a stinker, and at 68 minutes it's not a burden on your busy schedule. The cast is nothing special (although Frank Silvera deserves a shout out ... look him up), but again, none of the cast stinks. Still, the main reason to watch is to try and discern budding elements of Kubrick. Not sure I found any, although the camerawork is much better than the usual cheapo movie.

For me, the best part was seeing how Kubrick worked his way around the tiny budget. He's as inventive as Roger Corman in that regard. The sound is post-synced, and not always very well, but what can you do with $70K? My favorite cost-cutting move involved Kubrick's then-wife, Ruth Sobotka, who was a ballet dancer. In one scene, Irene Kane (the female lead) tells her life story to a new man in her life. Turns out her sister was a ballet dancer, and she tells her tale, we see Sobotka dancing ... alone on a bare stage. Kubrick manages to work in a main character's backstory without needing fall back on post-syncing. It's a triumph of keeping the costs down.