synchronic (aaron moorhead & justin benson, 2019)

A film I'd never heard of, from film makers I didn't know, which means Synchronic was a good Geezer Cinema choice, since one of the best things about that project is I get to see movies I might otherwise have missed. It was written by Benson, with cinematography by Moorhead, and both worked on the editing while directing. The two have done several films together, and have a bit of a following.

On Twitter, Moorhead described the film as "our weird movie about paramedics & designer rugs & the nature of time & dogs & New Orleans & death & cavemen & pirates & how the past sucked & friendship & burnt bodies & sad handshakes". That's actually a very good description, because one, it's accurate, and two, it tells you nothing about the movie. And since Synchronic benefits from spoiler-avoidance, I'm stealing Moorhead's tweet here. It's an atmospheric film, which lends itself to the mysterious unfolding of the plot. And I'm going to say something about that plot in a second here, so spoiler alert and all that.

It co-stars Anthony Mackie and Jamie Dornan. I've found Mackie to be reliable ... at least, I usually like the films that he is in (The Hurt Locker, Detroit, Half Nelson). He gives Synchronic some life to go with the atmosphere.

Here's where the spoilers come. Synchronic deals with time travel, and it appears that Moorhead and Benson wanted to address the problem of race in America. Mackie (Steve) and Dornan (Dennis) are paramedics, and there are a couple of references to the way Steve is treated as opposed to Dennis that offer a bit of insight. But when Steve starts time traveling, Moorhead and Benson seem a bit too proud of the fact that they are showing how tricky it would be for an African-American to go back in time, considering how Blacks have been mistreated throughout our history. It's not a particularly unique take ... the television series Agents of SHIELD and Timeless both addressed the topic, and were at least as interesting and pointed as is Synchronic.

Synchronic takes place in New Orleans, and it feels real ... it was shot there, and Mackie was born there. It is far from a failure. But it's slow-moving, and not to its advantage. A decent movie, not a great one.


i'm thinking of ending things (charlie kaufman, 2020)

There's no use hiding the facts: I'm Thinking of Ending Things is maddeningly obscure, and yet if you are in the right mood (as many critics were), you may find you love the movie. I'm here to confess that I did not love it.

Charlie Kaufman has made a career out of hard-to-categorize writing that challenges audiences while always suggesting big themes underneath the odd surfaces. He won an Oscar for his screenplay for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Early on, he worked on TV series like the bizarre Get a Life and the controversial Dana Carvey Show. When I try to get a handle on Kaufman, I find it useful to think of those series, which were off the wall at times in sneaky ways. I've liked some of the movies based on his screenplays, especially Adaptation. But in 2008, he started directing his work, with Synecdoche, New York, which I most definitely did not like. I wrote, "There are films that reward multiple viewings; I’ve watched a lot of them. But there is a difference between something that gets better every time you see it, and something that is incomprehensible on first viewing." I'm Thinking of Ending Things is the latter.

I know there is an audience for this, that many people like the puzzles a movie like this offers, that the uncertainties of the narrative might reflect the uncertainties of the characters, or even of life itself. But I prefer to have something to latch on to. I don't need my hand held, and I often enjoy flights of fantasy that take off from seemingly mundane beginnings. And I'm Thinking of Ending Things does strike one as mundane at first glance. But when I don't like this kind of movie, it's usually because I think the film maker is purposely obscure, that they are uninterested in anyone else understanding what they are doing. I can't say Kaufman is the only person who understands I'm Thinking of Ending Things ... for one thing, it's based on a novel, and I assume the author also "gets it". But I get the feeling Kaufman is happy to have each person in the audience come up with a different "meaning" for his film, and part of me thinks that's an excuse for not being clear enough in the first place. So while you might find pleasure in a movie where it's not clear if some or all of the characters are real, where it's not clear if the entire movie is or is not a fantasy, where it's not clear what's going on from one shot to the next ... well, I didn't get that pleasure from I'm Thinking of Ending Things.

Stars Jesse Plemons and Jessie Buckley are excellent. Co-stars Toni Collette and David Thewlis are less so, although I think their (over)acting is what Kaufman wanted. The cinematography from Lukasz Zal (Ida) is appropriately gorgeous and spooky as needed. Even someone like me, who was ultimately disappointed, found things to like. The one thing that should have appealed to me (Buckley's character offers a take on A Woman Under the Influence that is taken verbatim from Pauline Kael's review) just felt like a stunt. And I want my stunts to offer more fun than I got out of watching this film.


ocean waves (tomomi mochizuki, 1993)

This is the seventeenth film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2020-21", "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 6th annual challenge, and my second time participating (last year can be found at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20"). Week 17 is called "GKIDS Week".

For over a decade, GKIDS has been a godsend for the distribution of foreign, independent, and adult animation. Through a large line of Blu-rays and theatrical re-releases, this company has opened the door to the world of animation for those looking to cross the threshold. Recently, they obtained the rights to distribute the films of Studio Ghibli, so those are definitely on the table here, but I would suggest maybe taking a look at the many other wonderful films GKIDS has made available. Unless you haven't seen Porco Rosso. Get on that shit, a pigman flies a plane. So dope.

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen film distributed by GKIDS.

It was suggested that we look beyond Studio Ghibli, but Ocean Waves is a Ghibli I'd missed, so I picked it. It is an anomaly in the Ghibli universe, the first one directed by someone other than Hayao Miyazaki or Isao Takahata. It was meant to be an opportunity for some of Ghibli's younger members, but it went over budget and over schedule. The film ended up on Japanese television, and wasn't seen in the U.S. for more than 20 years. It's something of a neglected stepchild, which is unfair, but in truth, Ocean Waves is not a typical Studio Ghibli release. It tells the story of a love triangle among three high school teens, and is absent the element of fantasy we've come to expect from films like My Neighbor Totoro and Kiki's Delivery Service, which predate it by a few years.

The young woman isn't as interesting as the adventurous girls that feature in Miyazaki movies. In fact, none of the three main characters are particularly interesting, and the plot is rather mundane. Ocean Waves is never less than pleasant, but it rarely rises above that. The film becomes more affecting near the end, as the characters mature, and the theme of nostalgia is more effective once we've gotten a sense of what the lives of these young people were like in high school.

Ultimately, Ocean Waves might play better for an audience unfamiliar with Studio Ghibli. Fans of the studio bring expectations that aren't really served by the movie, and it's not a classic on the level of Princess Mononoke, but that's hardly a reason not to watch it.


revisiting heathers (michael lehmann, 1989)

You never know what will make you watch a particular movie. My wife and I are sitting around, and even though it was just a couple of hours ago, I can't remember the context. But I said, "I love my dead gay son", and by her response I could tell she didn't get the reference. Turns out she'd never seen Heathers. So we cranked it up.

I liked it as much as I ever did. I wrote about it here back in 2010. It was pretty short:

Its high points are very high indeed, but ultimately, it lacks the courage of its convictions. The ending is a copout, although Winona looks great covered in soot, cigarette hanging from her lip. That’s part of the problem: Heathers doesn’t reject the concept of cool, it just redefines it. This would be a better movie if they used the ending from Rock and Roll High School. None of this is meant to reduce its status as a cult classic.

It's half a good movie, but I love that half. It was fun to revisit it.

Heathers prisma


geezer cinema: the social dilemma (jeff orlowski, 2000)

It's odd ... I agree with much of what is in The Social Dilemma, and since it's a documentary with an argument, that agreement is crucial. But the presentation is lacking.

Jeff Orlowski trots out an impressive array of experts who know social media in part because they helped invent social media. They are sufficiently frightened about the negative side of social media that their concerns have an impact on us as we watch. But as the film progressed, I realized what was missing: actual, concrete evidence. There were a lot of anecdotes, there were a lot of connections that didn't always understand that correlation does not imply causation. And all of this was further muddied by an odd device wherein Orlowski occasionally switches to fiction, dramatizing the life of an ordinary family being controlled by an A.I. played by Mad Men's Vincent Kartheiser. It's a bit like those true crime television shows that feature recreations of the crime.

And the attempted connections ring false. We're shown charts demonstrating that non-fatal self harm and suicide have risen drastically in recent years. We see a fictional teenage girl who reacts badly to being made fun of online. We're told that "A whole generation is more anxious, more fragile, more depressed", and "that pattern points to social media". Well, that may be true, but I'm not going to believe it because of a fictional vignette about a disturbed teen, nor am I convinced that self harm and suicide can be blamed on social media simply because all of them became more prominent at the same time.

This is frustrating, because as I said, I tend to agree with their arguments. But tarting things up with recreations isn't the best way to get those arguments across. And while you'd think watching The Social Dilemma would scare us away from our phones and our Facebook and our Instagram, it seems just as likely to do the opposite. I'm reminded of my mother, back when TV was no longer allowed to advertise for cigarettes. The only time cigs were on the screen came during anti-smoking ads. My mom, a serious smoker, once told me that every time one of those ads came on, she reached for her pack of cigarettes, because the commercials reminded her she wanted a smoke.


the midnight sky (george clooney, 2020)

The Midnight Sky will remind you of many other movies, which isn't a crime. I wrote about I Am Mother that director Grant Sputore "borrows from lots of movies, but puts it together in a unique enough way to make it interesting in its own right. You might find this or that plot turn to be reminiscent of another film, but that thought only occurs to you after the fact." The problem with The Midnight Sky isn't that it borrows from other movies, but that it does nothing particularly new in the process.

The movie is not totally without merit. It looks great ... the two main sets, a space ship and the Arctic, are impressive. You feel sorry for the cast and crew who worked on the Arctic scenes (there is some confusion about where they were actually filmed, with Finland and England the leading possible candidates). And the inside of the enormous space ship seems as vast as a continent, adding to the feel of isolation among the astronauts (who at least have each other ... George Clooney's character is stranded alone among the glaciers). The outside of the ship is equally impressive. I mistakenly took it for a space station at first, because of the various appendages.

But there is more to a movie than pretty pictures. Clooney is one of our most charismatic actors, and it's disappointing that his character is sick and morose, with a grey beard covering most of this face. Clooney plays it low-key, but there are too many dead spots in the movie for low-key to keep our attention. Since Clooney also directed, we have to assume this is what he wanted, but if so, he's being too modest about his screen presence. Meanwhile, there are some fine actors up in space: Felicity Jones, David Oyelowo, Kyle Chandler, new-to-me Tiffany Boone, and a personal favorite, Demián Bichir. Sadly, their characters are mostly one-dimensional, if not wasted, at least underutilized.

There's a plot twist you might figure out long before it is exposed. Clooney and/or screenwriter Mark L. Smith decided to split the narrative between the ship, the Arctic, and flashbacks, and while they mostly avoid confusion, the technique doesn't allow any of the places to emerge ... it seems like whenever something interesting happens, we switch back to another setting, ruining any buildup that might have kept The Midnight Sky moving.

One of the films I was reminded of was Gravity, because it took place in space, because it also had George Clooney. The comparison isn't a positive one for The Midnight Sky. When the movie ended, I mentioned to my wife that I had given Gravity a rating of 9 out of 10. She replied that she hoped I'd give the same rating to The Midnight Sky. I said yes, their ratings were the same, if you stood on your head when reading the rating for this movie. 6/10.


film fatales #104: little white lie (lacey schwartz and james adolphus, 2014)

This is the sixteenth "film" I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2020-21", "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 6th annual challenge, and my second time participating (last year can be found at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20"). Week 16 is called "Black Women Writers/Directors Week".

A serious note to follow:

In the past year in America, racial tensions have reached a boiling point. BIPOC members of our society have suffered from social, political, and countless other forms of strife and injustice due simply to the color of their skin and the deep ceded racist ideals that exist in our society. This, of course, includes the film industry. Stories by black creators often don't get the attention or support that they deserve, especially so for women of color. I know the whole Season Challenge is created for fun, but I think it would behoove all of us to think more about the films we choose to watch and hold on high. With all that being said, let's use this opportunity to take in works by women of color, and to go forward with the idea of supporting their works in the future. Let us hear the voices that have gone criminally unheard and that offer unique experiences and perspectives. And, at the risk of sounding clichè, isn't that what cinema is all about?

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen film with a black woman writer and/or director.

The story of Lacey Schwartz encourages disbelief. Because we know from the start that Schwartz is black, we are puzzled that she made it so far into her life thinking she was white. It seems obvious to us. One thing Little White Lie does well is to put us in Lacey's young life, so that we start to understand why the "lie" took hold for so long.

She was raised "white" by two Jewish parents. The family was very much involved in the Jewish tradition, and Lacey had no other signposts to suggest to her that something wasn't as it seemed. Without ever saying anything specific, Little White Lie forces us to confront the constructed nature of "race". In the manner of "if it quacks like a duck, it's a duck", Lacey's parents and extended family all treat her as white and Jewish ... she "quacks" white. If anyone questions the way Lacey looks darker than the rest of her family, reference is made to a Sicilian ancestor.

None of this is possible without the deception of Lacey's mother (and probably father). Mom had an affair with a black man, who turned out to be Lacey's biological father. Mom didn't talk about it, Dad didn't admit he knew. There was nothing to discuss. And there is nothing in the film to suggest Lacey had a bad childhood. It's only later, when she realizes that unbeknownst to Lacey, her life was a "little white lie", that Lacey feels the resentment of someone who has been lied to.

There are a few scenes of Lacey confronting her parents, to find out the truth. There isn't much discussion of whiteness and blackness ... for the most part, it's contextual. One wishes the film was a bit longer, that more time was spent on the transition phase when Lacey realized the truth. But there is no denying that the film is fascinating. And there is a sense that the truth sets Lacey free. By any standard, she has had a good life ... Harvard Law School, a documentary film maker, a husband who is now a representative in the U.S. House, twin children. Her childhood, which was also good, was shadowed by a lie; the resolution of that lie allowed Schwartz to move on.

(List of Film Fatales movies)


geezer cinema: i am mother (grant sputore, 2019)

First-time director Grant Sputore had a low budget and a lot of ideas. He managed to work most of those ideas into I Am Mother, aided in part by a remarkable robot that was created in a way simultaneously old-school and new. Weta Workshop out of New Zealand, alongside project supervisor Luke Hawker, created a life-size humanoid robot, mostly bypassing CGI. Hawker then put the robot suit on, rather like Haruo Nakajima in all those Godzilla movies. This old way of making a monster feels once again new, and the robot moves and "acts" seamlessly. Add in Rose Byrne as the robot's voice (the robot is called "Mother"), and you have a quite believable creature right in the middle of the film.

As for all those ideas, Sputore throws up one homage after another ... Blade Runner, Ex Machina, Battlestar Galactica, and 2001 come to mind. Sputore borrows from lots of movies, but puts it together in a unique enough way to make it interesting in its own right. You might find this or that plot turn to be reminiscent of another film, but that thought only occurs to you after the fact. There are plot twists a-plenty, but you don't see them coming until they've reminded you of that other movie, and by then, Sputore has moved on again.

In all of this, I Am Mother is helped by some fine acting. New-to-me Danish actor Clara Rugaard is the core of the entire film as "Daughter", a human grown by "Mother" from an embryo. She convinces us that her emotional attachment to her robot mom is real, and then handles whatever Sputore gives her the rest of the way. Hilary Swank turns up with her usual solid performance ... I am regularly amazed that Hilary Swank has two Oscars, even though her wins were deserved ... I just don't picture Hilary Swank when I imagine a dual-Oscar winner.

I Am Mother is far from perfect. As Matt Zoller Seitz pointed out, "The most frustrating thing about 'I Am Mother' is the way it favors the unveiling of plot twists over nearly everything else, including characterization, theme, and the related pleasures of world-building." Still, those plot twists, along with the clever rearranging of homages, and the creation known as Mother, make I Am Mother much better than I expected.

(Letterboxd list of Geezer Cinema movies.)


film fatales #103: wonder woman 1984 (patty jenkins, 2020)

I liked the first Wonder Woman movie, especially Gal Gadot, and I was happy that Patty Jenkins was getting some attention. After directing Charlize Theron in her Oscar-winning performance in Monster, Jenkins worked in television for fourteen years before she got a chance at a second feature, which was Wonder Woman. Wonder Woman 1984 has both Jenkins and Gadot, and I was excited to see the sequel. Still, I'm a child of the critics, and so the mixed reaction to the film led me to lower my expectations considerably. Thus, I am happy to say that Wonder Woman 1984 does not stink.

But honestly, I hoped for much more. Gadot is just as good this time around, and Kristen Wiig (Welcome to Me) is excellent. The effects-laden battle at the end between Diana and Barbara is impressive enough. But, ironically for a movie with this title, there wasn't enough wonder in what we were seeing. The plot was relatively straightforward, but I couldn't shake the feeling that there were big holes in that plot. (In fairness, ten minutes after the movie ended, I could barely remember them.)

The method whereby Chris Pine/Steve Trevor returned was hokey, and has inspired some backlash among fans. (I want to know what became of the guy Steve "temporarily" replaced.) Meanwhile, WW84 is noisy enough to keep the audience awake, and the music by Hans Zimmer is good (has he reached the point where we call him "legendary"?). But awake or not, I felt like the movie was endless, and I have no idea why it need 151 minutes to tell its story. (But stay until the end, or at least until the extra scene about a minute into the credits ... it's a fun one.) Wonder Woman 1984 easily meets lowered expectations, but that's all it does.

(Letterboxd list of Film Fatales movies.)


movies 2020

Top 8 movies of 2020:

Da 5 Bloods

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom

The Nest

Dick Johnson Is Dead

The Trial of the Chicago 7

Never Rarely Sometimes Always

She Dies Tomorrow

Totally Under Control

(Letterboxd list of top movies of 2020)

 

Top 9 movies I watched for the first time in 2020:

Portrait of a Lady on Fire

French Cancan

The Wind

Apollo 11

Blindspotting

Da 5 Bloods

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom

The Shape of Water

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

 

Don't sleep on these movies I watched in 2020:

Sócrates4 Little GirlsFurieDrivewaysDivorce Italian StyleGraduation35 Shots of RumThe KillersAparajitoIrma VepCamerapersonThe PassengerL'ArgentHoneylandBabyteethThe LureThey Shall Not Grow OldThe Age of InnocenceThe Nightingale, The Vast of NightMidnight SpecialPain and GloryLa HaineIf Beale Street Could TalkThe Florida ProjectThe IrishmanMarriage Story1917Baby Driver

(Letterboxd list of movies I watched in 2020)