geezer cinema: a haunting in venice (kenneth branagh, 2023)

There will always be Agatha Christie adaptations and faux-Christie movies. You know if you like them, and if you do, you know to watch each new permutation. You will never be surprised, but Agatha Christie is like comfort food for fans. If you are a fan, you will enjoy A Haunting in Venice.

One of the ways producers make the latest Christie movie seem different is by filling the cast with a new set of big names. The cast in the first in the Kenneth Branagh series featuring Hercule Poirot, Murder on the Orient Express, included Michelle Pfeiffer, Johnny Depp, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Derek Jacobi, Daisy Ridley, Penélope Cruz, Olivia Colman ... you get the idea.  I didn't recognize as many names in this third installment, but Michelle Yeoh goes a long way for me, and Tina Fey pulls off a rare dramatic role. There are suggestions of supernatural occurrences, which I guess is a little bit of a change for Poirot. But for the most part, A Haunting in Venice is more of the same. As my wife, who chose the movie, said, "It was fine. Nothing too exciting."

It's not a waste of time, and it comes in at a pleasing 104 minutes. But if you ask me, stick with the Knives Out movies.

rock 'n' roll high school (allan arkush, 1979)

I just read a book, I Want You Around: The Ramones and the Making of Rock ‘n’ Roll High School, by Stephen B. Armstrong, which prompted yet another viewing of one of my favorite movies. I'm surprised I never wrote anything about it before, so here goes.

Sometimes I'll say of a movie that I respect it more than I like it, that I congratulate it for carrying out its intentions while admitting the movie isn't for me. Rock 'n' Roll High School is a bit like the opposite of that. Oh, after reading Armstrong's book, I think it's remarkable that the vision of Allan Arkush et al made it as close to the final product as could be. Arkush battled against people who didn't want the film to be made (Roger Corman kept asking Arkush to limit the scenes with The Ramones). The budget was low, the Ramones were amateur actors ... but Rock 'n' Roll High School has become a cult classic over the years, one I can watch again and again.

I love the relationship between the two female leads, #1 Ramones fan Riff Randell (P.J. Soles) and science geek Kate Rambeau (Dey Young). The camaraderie between the two actresses is beautiful. Most of the movie is cartoonish, but Riff and Kate have some authentic moments between them. The cast is full of the kinds of actors you need to establish your cult credentials, and they are all good: Clint Howard, Mary Woronov, Paul Bartel, the immortal Dick Miller, Don Steele, Grady Sutton, and two young women, Chris Summa and Marla Rosenfield, who won the hearts of many young boys but then seemed to disappear.

There are two things that separate Rock 'n' Roll High School from other teen-rebellion comedies. The most obvious is The Ramones. To be honest, the first part of the film drags a bit, with a lot of hit-or-miss schtick. But when The Ramones finally turn up ... well, it's one of my all-time favorite movie scenes:

The band had misgivings about being in the movie, and had turned down other offers to be in films, feeling that rock bands were always shown to be stupid. But here, they are charismatic, helped by the lovely fantasy of the film that The Ramones are like the biggest band in the world. And if they gave Oscars for Best Performance by an Extra, I'd say give one each to those two girls strangling each other in line.

The other thing that makes this movie different is the ending. We learn in Armstrong's book that from the beginning, it was intended that the movie would end with the teens blowing up the school. In the 50s rock movies from which Rock 'n' Roll High School draws, the ending usually comes when the parents realize their kids are OK, the music is OK, everything is OK. That's not how this one ends:

Maybe you hate to hate high school to really appreciate that ending.

So yeah, some of the jokes are sophomoric at best, things don't really pick up until The Ramones show up ... nobody ever said this is a great movie. But I love it, just the same.

the divorcee (robert z. leonard, 1930)

I just finished reading a 1929 novel by Ursula Parrott, Ex-Wife. It was popular on its release, and was published anonymously, although it wasn't long before Parrott's authorship was discovered. Ex-Wife was a fairly "racy" novel, told from the point of view of the woman. It's a good read, as they say, recently reissued. It feels quite modern, with its protagonist fighting for her independence amidst lots of one-night stands.

A year later came a film adaptation, The Divorcee, with Norma Shearer. The pre-Code movie was a bit edgy, but it was a milder version of Parrott's vision, one in which the divorcee ends up returning to her ex-husband. Mick LaSalle, author of Complicated Women: Sex and Power in Pre-Code Hollywood, is a great champion of Shearer, and he called The Divorcee "one of the best American films ever made about the breakup of a marriage." He believes the film was "subversive" and a "pre-Code landmark", claiming that the film goes places the novel did not, for the better. I think this requires a misreading of the novel ... I never thought the title character in the book was "a sex slave for her ex-husband". But LaSalle knows what he talks about when it comes to pre-Code films, and he makes a convincing case for the importance of The Divorcee, which won Shearer her only Oscar.

The problem is that, historical significance or not, The Divorcee isn't a very good movie. LaSalle has worked hard over the years to rescue Shearer's reputation from the likes of David Thomson, who wrote about "the fact—evident to anyone who cares to look at her films—that she was fluttery, chilly, and more nearly vacant than any other goddess." I am no expert on Norma Shearer ... I liked her in a dual role in the silent Lady of the Night, but while I am a fan of The Women, my memory is that Shearer was dull in comparison to her many co-stars. And I found The Divorcee to be less interesting than even Lady of the Night. It's a curio of a movie, worth seeing for that historical significance, but this is a case where you're better off reading the book.

geezer cinema: walkabout (nicolas roeg, 1971)

I don't have anything new to say about Walkabout, which I just watched for the gazillionth time. Walkabout is one of my very favorite movies, and is one of the reasons why, as a film major in the early-70s, I thought Nicolas Roeg was the best director. I recommend it highly to pretty much everyone reading this. Roeg was a cinematographer, twice nominated for a BAFTA for Best British Cinematography, and he did his own camerawork at the beginning of his career as a director, including Walkabout. His fragmented editing style was a trademark, although I've always wondered where it came from. Performance, his first film, which he co-directed with Donald Cammell, is fractured in this way, but Roeg was off making Walkabout while Cammell and Frank Mazzola apparently did the heavy editing. Petulia was another movie with what the IMDB calls "radical editing techniques", but Roeg was only on the camera for that film, and director Richard Lester was apparently the one behind that editing. Wherever Roeg got it from, he made it his own.

smile (parker finn, 2022)

This is the third film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2023-24", "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 9th annual challenge, and my fifth time participating (previous years can be found at "2019-20", "2020-21", "2021-22", and "2022-23"). Week 3 is called "Letterboxd List Battles!: Litterboxd vs. Letterbarkd":

"I have studied many philosophers and many cats. The wisdom of cats is infinitely superior." – Hippolyte Taine

"Dogs have boundless enthusiasm but no sense of shame. I should have a dog as a life coach." – Moby

"Way down deep, we’re all motivated by the same urges. Cats have the courage to live by them." – Jim Davis

"If I could be half the person my dog is, I’d be twice the human I am." – Charles Yu

"Dogs and cats living together! Mass Hysteria!" – Peter Venkman

It's a dispute as old as time: dogs or cats? For this week's challenge, your friendly hosts are cruelly forcing you to choose between man's best friend and man's indifferent roommate. For those who are dog people, fetch a film from Rembrandt Q Pumpernickel's Letterbarkd list. Cat lovers can curl up with a selection from Hollie Horror's Litterboxd list. And if you cannot possibly choose between the two—your animal-loving heart torn asunder at the thought—spread the love like a canine, disregard the rules like a feline, and watch one of each. That's right, Venkman, mass hysteria!

We are a cat family. Have been all of our lives. So you know which list I chose. Of course, Smile isn't a movie about a cat, but a cat plays a significant role. Smile is a very effective horror film, enough so that it makes you wonder why we choose to watch such movies in the first place. It's an uncomfortable watch, but then, that's why many people like horror ... we get giddy with nervous anticipation.

I wouldn't call Smile unique or original. Parker Finn knows how to hit his spots, and the angle (evil represented in smiling faces) is just unusual enough to make a difference. We recognize the tropes as they come along, but they are new to the characters, so their actions are not driven by what we in the audience know ... they don't know they are in a horror film. It's a very tense movie, at times unbearably so, which is all to the good. It's too long by a bit, but the tension peaks as the film ends, so you won't be looking at your watch.

Sosie Bacon is great. It's the first movie I've seen her in, and she carries it like a champ. The events of the film wear on her character, and you see it in her face ... she seems to be getting thinner and more wasted by the minute. I've seen some reviews that credit Finn for offering a study of grief and guilt in the midst of the horror, but I think that's a stretch ... it's a fine horror movie, but a person could write a doctoral dissertation on the ultimate meaning of The Babadook, while Smile just delivers as a strong genre effort. For me, it's not a diss to say it's not quite as good as The Babadook. Not many modern horror films are.

palm springs (max barbakow, 2020)

This is the second film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2023-24", "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 9th annual challenge, and my fifth time participating (previous years can be found at "2019-20", "2020-21", "2021-22", and "2022-23"). Week 2 is called "Lo-Fi Week":

Soft sci-fi beats to relax/study to. Ok maybe don't try to study while watching these, because these high-concept, usually low-budget films demand your attention just as much as epic space spectacles. From the intricate time travel of Primer to the heartbreak of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, this category includes low-budget, indie, and soft science fiction.

This week's challenge is to watch a "Lo-Fi" film. Use this list for some ideas.

I had no idea going in what Palm Springs was about, even after reading the above and knowing it was "lo-fi". I assumed it was an Andy Samberg comedy, and I have nothing against those movies ... well, the truth is I haven't seen them, but I have a soft spot in my heart for him because he went to high school with my daughter. The plot establishes itself soon enough: Nyles (Samberg) is caught in some time loop, reminiscent of Bill Murray in Groundhog Day. That comparison is probably intentional, and it works two ways in Palm Springs. Fond memories of Groundhog Day put you in a good mood for Palm Springs, but Palm Springs is never quite as good as Groundhog Day. Part of this is that Nyles is never an asshole ... he can be a jerk, but mostly he's just an amiable beer drinker with a penchant for causing a little trouble. Murray's character, on the other hand, is a real asshole, which allows the film to show us how that character evolves into a better person. Nyles is already a reasonably decent guy, so that evolution doesn't take place.

Still, the version of looping time in Palm Springs is ingenious enough, Samberg handles his lead role with aplomb, and Cristin Milioti is the best thing about the movie as a bystander who gets drawn into the loop. There aren't a lot of laugh-out-loud moments, but the philosophical underpinnings are actually thought-provoking. Palm Springs isn't great, but it's much better than it needed to be.

geezer cinema/film fatales #181: bottoms (emma seligman, 2023)

Emma Seligman and Rachel Sennott are building a base for the kind of teamwork we associate with greats like Scorsese and DeNiro. OK, that's a stretch and I know it, but writer/director Seligman and writer/actor Sennott go back to their days at NYU (where they also met Ayo Edebiri, Sennott's co-star in Bottoms), and the two made a short, Shiva Baby, that became Seligman's first feature. One imagines the three women helping to create a work together that benefits from their very real camaraderie.

The setup for Bottoms makes perfect sense ... before it was made, there was nothing quite like it, but now it's only surprising that it took this long. There are antecedents  ... it's not like there have never been gross-out comedies about teens. But putting a queer focus at the center of the film gives a new feel, and makes those antecedents seem a bit passé. And Bottoms is unafraid to "go there" ... the IMDB Parents Guide notes the level of "surprisingly bloody violence throughout the movie, although all of it is played for laughs", and it would seem that Bottoms is one of the rare movies that earns its "R" rating more for violence than for sex. The key is that it is indeed "played for laughs". The best comparison for me is to Heathers, although that film tried harder to make its subtext into text. (Wynona Ryder in Heathers saying the memorable line "my teen-angst bullshit now has a body count" could be true for Bottoms as well if Seligman and co. weren't having too much fun making it happen). Both films offer a version of high school that is recognizable but exaggerated to great effect.

The fine work by the three women is expected at this point, but the performances of the rest of the cast bring some newer faces to the front. There's Ruby Cruz, daughter of former child star Brandon Cruz, in her feature debut, and model Kaia Gerber (daughter of Cindy Crawford), and Havana Rose Liu, and especially Marshawn Lynch, known as Beast Mode in his years in the NFL, who somehow fits right in (this list could be much longer).

Bottoms isn't perfect. It's all over the place, and not everything hits the target. But you're having too much fun as you are watching to worry about such things.

african-american directors series/film fatales #180: nanny (nikyatu jusu, 2022)

This is the first film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2023-24", "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 9th annual challenge, and my fifth time participating (previous years can be found at "2019-20", "2020-21", "2021-22", and "2022-23"). Week 1 is called "99 Minutes Week":

This year marks the Letterboxd Season Challenge's ninth year—it's the challenge with nine lives! And what better way to celebrate than abandoning last year's Long Time Running theme week (3+ hour films, if you've forgotten) and embracing the Goldilocks of movie lengths: 90 minutes. But to be clever, we've added an extra nine minutes for LSC9. 99! That's two nines! (What's that cricket sound?) Anyway, we've gone the whole nine yards and painstakingly compiled a prodigious list of movies, each of them exactly ninety-nine minutes long, and dressed them to the nines, all beautifully arranged just so.

This week's challenge is to join us on cloud nine and watch a film from 𝖘𝖊𝖙𝖍𝖊𝖓𝖘𝖙𝖊𝖎𝖓's 99 minutes ⏲️ No more, no less list.

The Letterboxd Season Challenge is supposed to be fun, and sometimes the category of the week emphasizes this. Previous first-week challenges have included topics like "watch the most popular film you haven't seen", "watch a previously unseen film about gambling", and "Central American Independence Week". This year's opener is a bit silly in its exactness: watch a movie that is 99 minutes long. The possibilities are far from limited ... the 𝖘𝖊𝖙𝖍𝖊𝖓𝖘𝖙𝖊𝖎𝖓 list from which we choose has 578 films on it.  I chose Nanny because ... well, it becomes clear soon enough that I quickly forget why I picked a particular movie for the Challenge (I chose all 33 movies more than a week ago). Nanny has a lot going for it ... writer/director Nikyatu Jusu was only the second Black woman director to win the Sundance Grand Jury Prize, all the more impressive because Nanny is her first feature.

Jusu shows great promise, especially in the atmospherics she provides here. Nanny is often unsettling, but at the right times and for the right reasons. It also covers a lot of ground ... it's a story about the lives of immigrants to the U.S., it offers a picture of the clueless assumption of privilege by the white American upper-middle class, and it gives us a powerful performance by Anna Diop in the title role. It's nice to see Leslie Uggams turn up. It's easy to recommend Nanny.

Yet it falls short, I think. It isn't clear from the start, but Nanny is a horror movie. The idea that the life of an immigrant might seem like a horror movie is well taken, but the otherworldly components of the film don't fit smoothly, and the opening up of Nanny into the realm of horror is too gradual ... at first it's hard to even recognize, and then it feels like two movies. It's far from a failure, and when I said it's an unsettling movie, I meant that as a compliment. But it's more a fine welcome to Nikyatu Jusu to the world of movies than it is a welcome to a new classic.

revisiting pan's labyrinth (guillermo del toro, 2006)

Fifteen years ago, I wrote about Pan's Labyrinth:

I'm not sure I can recommend a movie as being for the whole family when it's not in English and there is a lot of violence, but this is my idea of the kind of movie that kids should be watching, rather than the usual tripe kids are offered. To point out an obvious example, Pan's Labyrinth was nominated for an Oscar for best original screenplay ... it lost to trite Little Miss Sunshine, which I'm sure was more "appropriate" for youngsters but wasn't half the movie that Pan's Labyrinth was....

Watching it again, I'm not sure what I was on about. This is absolutely not a movie for kids. I guess my only excuse was that I was pissed off at the middling Little Miss Sunshine beat it out for Best Screenplay.

Meanwhile, Pan's Labyrinth remains an enthralling experience. Currently #46 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century, and #531 on the all-time list.

la la land (damien chazelle, 2016)

La La Land is a lovely musical romance, with charismatic lead performances from Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling. It looks great, the cinematography (by Linus Sandgren) is enjoyably inviting, and the blend of upbeat moments and downbeat situations is effective. It was nominated for 14 Oscars, winning 6, including Best Director, Best Actress, and Best Cinematography. (It rightfully lost Best Picture to Moonlight in a now-infamous foul-up at the Oscar ceremonies.) It is currently #270 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century.

I didn't care for it.

First, it's a musical, and a day later, I can't recall a single song. (It won the Oscar for Best Score.)

Second, it's a musical. The last true musical film I loved was Cabaret in 1972. (Since then, I have loved a few concert films ... The Last Waltz, Stop Making Sense, Summer of Soul.) My favorite musicals are Fred and Ginger movies from the 1930s.

Basically, I was never going to like La La Land, and that has little to do with the film itself. So Your Mileage May Vary and all that.

The opening is a marvel of production excellence: