manos: the hands of fate (harold p. warren, 1966)

This is the eighteenth film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2021-22", "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 7th annual challenge, and my third time participating (my first year can be found at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20", and last year's at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2020-21"). Week 18 is called "One-and-Done Week":

At least no one can say they didn't try. Though the reason behind some of these single directorial filmographies may be apparent upon viewing, there are certainly a number of filmmakers who left us wanting more after just one outing. A fun, grab-bag experiment.

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen film by a director who has only directed one film. Here is a smaller list with focus on notable names, and here is a larger compendium.

The story goes that Howard Hawks and Ernest Hemingway were fishing together, and Hawks told Hemingway he could make a good movie out of Hemingway's worst book, which Hawks said was To Have and Have Not. The resulting film was a hit. Maybe it came from a bad novel, but it had Howard Hawks as a director. It starred Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, with a supporting cast of everyone from Walter Brennan to Hoagy Carmichael.  At one point, William Faulkner came in to work on the script. Even coming from a poor source, Hawks and Warner Brothers could produce something fun.

Some 20 years later, Sterling Silliphant, who had written mostly for television and who later won an Oscar for Best Screenplay, met a man named Harold P. Warren. Warren, an insurance and fertilizer salesman, bet Silliphant he could make a horror movie all on his own. Silliphant took up the bet. Now, Warren wasn't Howard Hawks. Warner Brothers wasn't bankrolling the affair (Warren got the money together himself, eventually getting $19,000). With such a low budget, he couldn't pay the cast or the crew, so he gave them a cut of the hoped-for profits. Warren also saved money by directing, writing, producing, and starring in the film. With no budget for cast or crew, Warren wasn't going to get Walter Brennan or Hoagy Carmichael, so the rest of the cast was culled from local talent. The result, Manos: The Hands of Fate was no To Have and Have Not ... instead, it regularly makes Worst Movie Ever lists.

It was the only movie Warren ever directed ... I'm pretty sure it was the only movie any of the people associated with it ever made. It is godawful. It's not worth the time to list everything that is wrong with the movie. It's impossible to see any vision that Warren might have had, the way Ed Wood movies, bad as they were, often were recognizably Ed Wood movies. There isn't a single moment worth watching.

The film was mostly forgotten ... heck, it only had a few local screenings in 1966. But then it turned up as an episode on Mystery Science Theater 3000, and it became an "instant" cult classic. Even if you are not a fan of MST3K, you'll probably find their version more watchable than the original, Because the original was just that bad.


the cloud-capped star (ritwik ghatak, 1960)

This is the seventeenth film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2021-22", "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 7th annual challenge, and my third time participating (my first year can be found at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20", and last year's at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2020-21"). Week 17 is called "Parallel Cinema & New Indian Cinema Week":

Though not exactly the same movements, in the interest of availability, I've combined the two into one week.

From Wikipedia:

"Parallel cinema, or New Indian Cinema, was a film movement in Indian cinema that originated in the state of West Bengal in the 1950s as an alternative to the mainstream commercial Indian cinema.

Inspired by Italian Neorealism, Parallel Cinema began just before the French New Wave and Japanese New Wave, and was a precursor to the Indian New Wave of the 1960s. The movement was initially led by Bengali cinema and produced internationally acclaimed filmmakers such as Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen, Ritwik Ghatak, Tapan Sinha and others. It later gained prominence in other film industries of India.

It is known for its serious content, realism and naturalism, symbolic elements with a keen eye on the sociopolitical climate of the times, and for the rejection of inserted dance-and-song routines that are typical of mainstream Indian films."

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen Parallel or New Indian Cinema film.

This was a good challenge for me, because I am woefully uneducated about Indian cinema. I've seen a handful of Satyajit Ray movies and a Bollywood movie or two, but I had never heard of New Indian Cinema, and didn't know any of the notable directors outside of Ray. I have no idea if The Cloud-Capped Star is indicative of the work of Ritwik Ghatak, or Parallel cinema in general, but it's an impressive movie on its own.

The Cloud-Capped Star reminded me of many other films. The heroine, Neeta, played by Supriya Choudhury, a legend in Bengali cinema who was new to me, suffers so much she could have been the central figure in a Lars von Trier movie. Neeta is too kind, too willing to put others ahead of herself. Ghatak often uses close-ups that seem like they came from silent movies. The faces tell us so much, even when the character is not speaking, but the acting styles are modern, not overdone as can be the case in silents. Only a small portion of the film takes place in the city, but when it does, it is reminiscent of the way real locations were used in the French New Wave:

Also, Ghatak gets eerie passages by his use of sound. If shooting in a natural setting seems "real", his use of sound is often surreal:

All of this may remind us of other movies, but the combination is unique. The Cloud-Capped Star is engrossing on many levels, and an eye-opener into the world of Bengali cinema beyond Satyajit Ray.


geezer cinema/film fatales #129: the lost daughter (maggie gyllenhaal, 2021)

The Lost Daughter is a complicated movie, and writer/director Maggie Gyllenhaal, working from a novel by Elena Ferrante, never shows a sign that this is her first time behind the camera. It's a film about women and motherhood, told from the perspective of a woman, and Gyllenhaal's guiding hand ensures that no matter how upsetting some of the main character's action are, we still see them as part of a continuum of stereotypes that still try to force women into roles concocted by men.

Olivia Colman has the showier role as a middle-aged professor, Leda, in the modern-day segments. Jessie Buckley plays the same character 20 years earlier, and for once, the back-and-forth timeline is useful rather than ostentatious. It's a bit like the Robert De Niro scenes in The Godfather: Part II, where we learn a lot about Vito Corleone when we see his formative years. Buckley's Leda is an often-overwhelmed mother trying to balance her family life and her academic work, and it's not hard to see how this eventually turned into the Leda played by Colman. As others have noted, though, Gyllenhaal is not judgmental. Leda/Buckley can be a mess, and she doesn't always act in the perfect way with her kids, but the portrait Gyllenhaal and Buckley present does not make Leda into a monster or an angel. She's a woman of many parts, like most real people.

If the earlier Leda scenes help us understand the later Leda, that doesn't change the fact that Leda/Colman does act at times in ways that are hard to accept. Gyllenhaal may think she is avoiding a judgmental approach here as well, but Leda commits one act which is meanspirited in a way that makes her unlikeable. And yes, it's a burden for women to have to always be likeable, but the Leda of 20 years ago never falls into meanness. We may feel we know why Leda steals and hides a little girl's doll, but it's a mean act nonetheless, and I felt it the film passes judgment in ways that it mostly avoids.

Ultimately, The Lost Daughter is an excellent film that announces a new writer/director talent that we might have thought we already knew. (Ironically, as I think of Gyllenhaal's accomplishment, I can't help but connect it to her character arc in The Deuce, where she begins as a prostitute turned porn actress who eventually finds some power by becoming a porn director.)


cold war (pavel pawlikowski, 2018)

Sometimes an actor commands the screen with such remarkable presence that you can't keep your eyes off of them. If it's a new actor, then you know this will be the performance that makes them a star. Such is the work of Joanna Kulig in Cold War, and indeed she won several awards at festivals for this film. But Kulig had made more than 20 movies before Cold War, including two with Pavel Pawlikowski, one of which, Ida, I had seen (she had a supporting role in that film). She had worked on stage for many years, as well as several television series. She was already in her mid-30s when Cold War was filmed. In other words, her performance here did not come out of nowhere, and it didn't make her name ... she was already known, if not to me.

Still, imagine how great she is to elicit such a response. She plays a singer, Zula, in the film, and right from the start, people are commenting on Zula's unique appeal. Ten minutes in, one character remarks that "she has something", and he's right. Tomasz Kot is very good as well as Wiktor, a pianist who loves Zula. But when both are on the screen, it's Kulig who has our attention.

The film is beautifully shot in black and white, in the Academy ratio of 4:3. It takes place in post-war Europe, when the Cold War emerged, and the look of the film seems right for the time.

Pawlikowski makes good use of music, including one scene that makes Bill Haley seem like the most liberating of rock and rollers:

Cold War is #415 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century.


where the sidewalk ends (otto preminger, 1950)

The fifth and last time Dana Andrews and Gene Tierney starred together, and this time, Otto Preminger, who directed them in Laura, is back in charge. It's a decent film that turns up on a lot of film noir best-of lists. Laura is more highly regarded, but I think the two films are about equally good (admittedly, I find Laura to be overrated). Ben Hecht wrote the screenplay. A lot of future TV actors turn up: Karl Malden, Craig Stevens, Neville Brand. Maybe the most interesting is Gary Merrill as gangster Tommy Scalise, the same year he was in All About Eve. Scalise has a habit of pulling out a nasal inhaler, for no apparent reason ... the story is that Scalise was intended to  be a drug addict, but the Production Code wouldn't have it, so they snuck in his addiction via Benzedrine.

The police do not come across well in Where the Sidewalk Ends. They seem obsessed with chain of command, and Dana Andrews' detective Mark Dixon is a violent man with several chips on his shoulder. (The character is reminiscent of Dirty Harry Callahan ... Andrews is a better actor than Clint Eastwood, but Eastwood gets the unsettling feel of the violent cop in ways Andrews can't match.)

The plot doesn't always make sense. It's easy enough to follow, but you don't want to think to much about why the characters do what they do (answer: if they acted differently, there would be no movie). Mark Dixon accidentally does something that goes bad; at that point, anything is possible, including that Dixon admits what happened and takes what might be a bit of a slap on the wrists. Instead, Dixon makes things worse, giving the movie a reason to exist.

I'm being too harsh. Where the Sidewalk Ends flows nicely, and the performances are good. Fans of Laura should definitely check it out.

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kick-ass (matthew vaughn, 2010)

This is the sixteenth film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2021-22", "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 7th annual challenge, and my third time participating (my first year can be found at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20", and last year's at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2020-21"). Week 16 is called "'No DC, No Marvel Week":

As someone who is admittedly not that interested in comic book film adaptations, it's hard to deny the popularity of them in the past decade and a half. However, the ubiquity with Marvel and DC that these films tend to have seems counter productive. Why don't we take a look at those films based on comics that don't fall under either company's properties.

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen comic book-based film NOT under the Marvel or DC umbrella. Here is a list to guide the way.

What I had written got magically deleted, so I'll get to the point: the #1 reason to watch Kick-Ass is Chloë Grace Moretz. She is amazing as an 11--year-old assassin/superhero called Hit-Girl. People who don't like movie violence should avoid this movie ... the violence is over-the-top. As the IMDB Parent Guide says, in the second of its 11 notes on the film's violence, "There's a scene where a man is in a microwave and he blows up. Blood and guts go all over the screen but it's done in a comedic way." That last part matters. It's an extremely violent film, but it's comic-book violence, and hard to take seriously. Also, some people object to the idea of an 11-year-old committing all these violent acts ... by the time the movie ends, Hit-Girl has killed around 40 people herself, almost 2/3 of the entire film's body count.  (She also occasionally uses rather unexpected profanity ... again, from the IMDB: "1 very brief use of 'c*nt' (said by an 11 year old, so mostly comedic)". I told you it was comedic.

Moretz pulls it all off with aplomb. She has since shown her skills in a variety of movies. She was one of the best things about Scorsese's Hugo, and she carries the entertaining action picture Shadow in the Cloud. She had already done a lot of work prior to Kick-Ass, but this is the movie that made her a star.


geezer cinema: spider-man: into the spider-verse (bob persichetti, peter ramsey, and rodney rothman, 2018)

Not a lot to add, here. I watched this a couple of years ago, and haven't changed my mind since. It's a very good movie. We watched it because it was my wife's turn to pick this week's Geezer movie, she wanted to watch Spider-Man: No Way Home but we have temporarily stopped going to theaters, and she had never seen Into the Spider-Verse. Here is what I said when I watched it before:

I've finally seen it, and it is every bit as good as people said. Endlessly inventive and full of surprises. I guess fans of the comics weren't as surprised as I, who hadn't read any of the related versions. They knew that the Spider-Verse featured multiple versions of Spider-Man ... I was unspoiled and thus amazed.

Into the Spider-Verse is a bit like if Philip K. Dick had written a Marvel book. We get at least two Spider-Mans, a Spider-Woman, a Spider-Man Noir, even Spider-Ham ("Peter Porker"). Each has distinguishing characteristics, and not just visually ... time is taken to give depth to each character. It's an ambitious movie, but those ambitions are extended beyond the usual spectacle to include a human element....

Champions of Into the Spider-Verse were right. To use a cliché, it's not just a good animated film, it's a very good film, period. Fans of Marvel will like it. People who don't often take in superhero movies will like it. I liked it.


revisiting the 9s: black panther (ryan coogler, 2018)

[This is the fifth in a series that will probably be VERY intermittent, if I remember to post at all. I've long known that while I have given my share of 10-out-of-10 ratings for movies over the years, in almost every case, those movies are fairly old. By rough count, I have only given the top rating to 17 non-documentaries from the 21st century. (For some reason, I don't have a problem giving tens to new documentaries.) So I got this idea to go back and revisit movies of relatively recent vintage that I gave a rating of 9, to see if time and perspective convinced me to bump that rating up to 10. Of course, it's always possible I'll drop the rating, but time will tell.]

Back in 2018, I wrote:

I would argue that Michael B. Jordan overcomes Boseman's excellence. I am a longtime fan of Jordan's, so I may be too biased. But he is so great as Killmonger that he breaks through the attempt to make the character into a villain. Yes, Killmonger is a sociopath, but ... OK, I know there is no "but" for some people, but like Nicholson's Joker, Jordan commands the screen with such intensity that I found myself rooting for him, despite the way in the end the film denounces Killmonger. It is like those 30s gangster movies, where the bad guy had to die in the last scene, but when you walked out of the theater you remembered the excitement of the film's first 85 minutes, not the required comeuppance.

The time around, the loss of Chadwick Boseman is deeply felt ... it's impossible not to see T'Challa and ignore the fact that Boseman was working so hard even as he knew he had cancer. Hindsight influences how we see the past, and in the final scenes of Black Panther, I thought he looked gaunt. But I didn't notice back in 2018, and I suspect I imagined it in 2022. Nonetheless, Boseman was suffering during the production of the film, and while that in itself isn't a guarantee of a great performance, the fact that Boseman gave a great performance while he had cancer is simply remarkable. Watching this time, I remained extremely impressed by Michael B. Jordan ... when am I not impressed by him? But I wouldn't say now that he was the dominant actor in the movie. In fact, it's a great thing we have, to see two dynamic performers going up against each other like Jordan and Boseman do here. I can't say it was robbery that Boseman didn't get the Best Actor Oscar ... oddly, I still haven't seen any of the five nominees. Nor have I yet seen any of the Supporting Actor nominees, so while I think Jordan was worthy, I can't make the proper comparisons.

I should note that I watched something of a special version this time. Originally, we saw it in IMAX in a theater. Recently, Disney Plus has begun offering a handful of Marvel films in what they call "IMAX Enhanced". Essentially, it changes the aspect ratio to match that of IMAX. In the case of Black Panther, this isn't true for the entire movie, but rather for specific scenes. The transition was seamless ... in fact, I barely noticed, which may or may not be an argument in its favor.

Black Panther remains the best of the Marvel movies. Of the ones that have been released since then, only Shang-Chi comes close. But, as good as it is, I don't think it quite makes it to the pantheon of greatest films. I am sticking with 9/10 in this case.


being the ricardos (aaron sorkin, 2021)

Being the Ricardos invites a pro/con list, in that there are some fine parts, but the overall feeling is a bit off. Aaron Sorkin might be a little of both ... his writing is often a pleasure, his directing not so much. He can do office politics in his sleep. The truth is, my opinion about Sorkin is tied to his work in television, because I've never seen a movie he wrote, directed, or both, that I didn't like. And Sports Night was one of my favorite television shows, and yeah, West Wing was pretty good, too. But Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip was mostly crap, The Newsroom was sanctimonious an often crap, and his female characters were often problematic. So I may think he never made a movie as good as Sports Night, but otherwise his movies are good, his TV series are erratic at best. Point is, I should look forward to his movies, given how much I like his past work there (The Trial of the Chicago 7, which he directed, and The Social Network, which he wrote).

I also liked the cast. There were a lot of complaints about Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem not looking like their real-life counterparts, as if that mattered (Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker didn't look like Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, yet Bonnie and Clyde was only one of the best movies of all time). The two leads are both deserving Oscar winners, top actors, and they are good here. Kidman gives us the tough side of the off-screen Lucille Ball, Bardem is a charming philanderer as Desi Arnaz, and I never wondered how another actor would have done. The supporting cast has a lot of my favorites, as well: J.K. Simmons (an Oscar winner himself), Alia Shawcat, Clark Gregg. Nina Arianda made her name on stage, and I didn't know her, but she was excellent as Vivian Vance.

All of this sounds like a great movie. So why am I hesitant to call it that? A lot of it is the film's structure. It's interesting to give us a week in the life of the stars, as they make an episode of I Love Lucy, but Sorkin seems determined to fit every famous story about Lucy and Desi into his movie, with the result being overstuffed. I don't mind the messing with real-life chronology, and Sorkin makes good use of flashbacks. But a movie that dealt more specifically with the making of the episode, and the relationship between the stars, would have been tighter. I don't think the Lucy-is-a-Commie thread was necessary, even if it was mostly true to real life.

Also, J.K. Simmons delivers, as always, but William Frawley is poorly written. In the beginning, when he is crotchety and bitchy about Vance, it rings true. But when he becomes the all-knowing veteran who helps everyone out, it doesn't ring true, at least to the character as it was first presented.

I liked Being the Ricardos, which is no surprise. I was even encouraged to watch the particular episode they are working on in the movie (it's not a great one, for what it's worth). But Sorkin still hasn't made a movie as good as Sports Night.


letterboxd movie lists

Some movie lists connected in some way to 2021. The nice thing about Letterboxd is that I can update lists on an ongoing basis, so the links here will always take you to the most recent updates.

Movies I Watched in 2021

There were 160 of them, down from 165 in 2020, but there was a month in Europe.

Top 10 Movies from 2021

This is a good example of a list that should get updates as I see more 2021 movies. Spoiler alert: as I type this, my #1 is Summer of Soul.

Top Movies from 2020

And this is why I got this idea in the first place. I am often at least a year behind on new releases, so my top tens from the previous year are more inclusive than the ones for the year that just passed. So I watched 29 movies from 2020 this year, effectively doubling the number of 2020 films I have seen. So yes, this list has been updated. Spoiler alert: as I type this, my #1 is Ma Rainey's Black Bottom.

If you're still reading, here are the three worst movies I saw this year, in order of their release date: Devil's Partner, Cloudburst, Birds of Prey.

Finally, one of my several "Blind Spot" lists that feature movies I haven't seen.

All-Time Worldwide Box Office Leaders I Haven't Seen

Spoiler alert: I have never seen Jurassic World, which is #6 on the all-time list.