geezer cinema/film fatales #59: blinded by the light (gurinder chadha, 2019)

The latest movie in the weekly trip to the theater that my wife and I have started since she retired. This was my choice, although I was really just making good on a plan we hatched with a friend back when Blinded by the Light was first announced, that we would go see it ASAP.

On seeing the film, Springsteen reportedly said, "I don't want you to change a thing. It's perfect." Which reminded me of an anecdote Pauline Kael told about the 1940s musical Night and Day, a biopic about Cole Porter.

"William Bowers, one of the three scenarists, said later that he was so ashamed of this picture that about a year after it came out he called Cole Porter, whose biography it purported to be, and told him how sorry he was, and Porter said, "Love it. Just loved it. Oh, I thought it was marvelous." Bowers says that he told Oscar Hammerstein how puzzled he was by this, and Hammerstein said, "How many of his songs did you have in it?" Bowers answered "Twenty-seven," and Hammerstein said, "Well of course he loved it. They only turned out to be twenty-seven of the greatest songs of all time. You don't think he heard that stuff that went on between his songs, do you?"

It's hard to imagine a subject for a film that would be more appealing to me than the story of a person transformed by a love of Bruce Springsteen. Oh, I had read enough advance reviews to know that Blinded by the Light would probably be kinda sappy, which isn't my favorite thing, but c'mon, it's Bruce! It has lots of his songs! He liked the movie!

And there was even an added attraction I had somehow missed: among the cast is Hayley Atwell!

It started out OK, although it takes awhile to get to Bruce. We learn about the hardships of growing up Pakistani in the England of Maggie Thatcher. We learn about how Luton appears to Javed (Viveik Kalra), a teenage resident (it sucks). We learn about the struggles of Javed and his hard-nosed father. It's a good setup for the scene where Javed is introduced to the music of Bruce Springsteen. Most people tell him he can't relate to Bruce, a white American who sings about girls and cars. But the setup makes it all obvious ... it's not just that Bruce is universal, it's that he speaks to Javed in ways that are quite on target.

It's when Javed's life is changed by Bruce that the film goes downhill. Granted, this is a good example of Your Mileage May Vary, because most of what I didn't like about the movie related to the style of the film. It's almost as if Chadha and writer Sarfraz Manzoor took this Made for Steven concept and used every trick in the Steven Hates This book.

I like that Bruce's songs inspire Javed, and the movie does a good job of showing that. But for some reason, it didn't occur to me that at times, Blinded by the Light would turn into the kind of musical I hate. It's one thing for Bruce's music to play while Kalra's face shows us the connection, and I even liked the way the lyrics sometimes turned up on the screen. But I really didn't need characters inserting Bruce lyrics into their conversations. It was enough to hear the music and see the actors working with the concept. It was over the top when those characters said things like "tramps like us, baby we were born to run".

Some of the joy Bruce brings to Javed is contagious, and effectively presented. But I didn't need to see "Born to Run" turned into a song-and-dance for Javed and his friends.

So figure it's just me and my taste preferences, and go see Blinded by the Light for yourself, because you'll probably think it's harmless fun. I'd watch a movie with nothing but Bruce Springsteen singing songs. But the last thing I want to see is a musical with other people singing his songs.

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)


top three of each year

I've been spending a little time at the Letterboxd website ... this is what happens when you're retired, I guess. A couple of fellows from Germany uploaded a list of their top three films of each year, and I got inspired enough to create my own list. It starts in 1924 and goes through 2018. Two years (1926 and 1929) only got two movies, so the entire list is comprised of 283 movies. The thing that interested me the most was the recent films, because when I make Top 50 lists or whatever, I always end up with lots of old movies and not enough new ones. By forcing myself to pick three from each year, I was able to give recent years some space. So, to take a couple of years at random, from 2018, Black Panther, Roma, and Springsteen on Broadway made the list, while 2005 offered A History of Violence, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, and Dave Chappelle's Block Party. Top three from 1924? Sherlock, Jr., Greed, and The Navigator (lots of Buster Keaton in the silent years).

You can check out the list here:

Top 3 of each year, 1924-2018


silent light (carlos reygadas, 2007)

Last year, Emre Çağlayan published Poetics of Slow Cinema: Nostalgia, Absurdism, Boredom, which I am guessing grew out of his PhD thesis, Screening Boredom: The History and Aesthetics of Slow Cinema. You can find a list of 258 "Slow Cinema" movies included in the thesis on Letterboxd. I have mentioned on several occasions here that the idea of "slow cinema" seems far out of my area of interest. I have also noted that I often like those movies when I see them. Thus, I have seen 22 of the 258 films on that Letterboxd list, and I liked 18 of them, including 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, which made my 50 Favorite Movies list a few years ago, and Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce 1080 Bruxelles, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, and Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, all of which I loved. It would seem I need to do two things: lighten up on the criticisms of slow cinema, and watch a lot more slow cinema movies.

Well, Silent Light marks the 23rd film from the list that I have seen, and I can safely say that I still only liked 18 of them. Silent Light falls into the category of films where I appreciate when a film seems to have turned out how the filmmaker wanted it to, but where I nonetheless didn't like it. I'm always trying to think of a catchy name for this category ... maybe "Your Mileage May Vary"? Because I don't want to criticize Carlos Reygadas for doing what he wanted to do, and to the extent I know what he wanted, I have no problems, but I'm still unenthusiastic about the result.

Silent Light runs 136 minutes. I paused it twice, ostensibly to pee, but that was just an excuse to break the boredom for a bit. Reygadas uses non-professional actors, and it works well. The movie is also gorgeous to look at. But ... the entire film is not in real time (this isn't High Noon), but individual scenes are played in real time. Working from memory (no, I'm not going to watch it again to see if I'm right), the film opens with a beautiful long take that goes from the stars to a lovely sunrise to a pretty landscape, then goes inside a house where a Mennonite family is saying grace before breakfast. "Saying" is a bit of a misnomer ... everyone seems to be praying silently, and this goes on for a couple of more minutes until the father finally says "Amen". After which, the family eats cereal. In real time.

So ... "Your Mileage May Vary", but I was pretty bored. #50 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century, and #580 on their all-time list.

Here's an interview with Reygadas. He deserves the last word. (There is a Silent Light spoiler, so beware.)


rome, open city (roberto rossellini, 1945)

In 1945, Rome was in a state of devastation after years of war. Mussolini was gone, as were the Nazis, but it was only a matter of months since the Allies had forced the Nazis to leave. Rossellini had the locale for his documentary-style drama about occupied Rome. What he didn't have was money. So Open City has a slapdash feel by necessity. Rossellini created an early neorealist classic in part because he had no other choice.

But it is a mistake to think of Open City as lacking artifice. I found the score, by Rossellini's brother Renzo, to be obtrusive and at times melodramatic, especially given the realist feeling of the film:

Anna Magnani is an interesting choice as one of the few professional actors in the film. She has the look of an ordinary Italian, but her acting style can be florid. In Open City she can be quiet and then erupt into volcanic emotion. She is at times the best thing about Open City, but you are usually aware that she is acting, quite noticeable compared to some of the other actors.

Here is an excellent video essay on the film by Bruce Isaacs:

#124 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time.


geezer cinema: fast & furious presents: hobbs & shaw (david leitch, 2019)

The latest movie in the weekly trip to the theater that my wife and I have started since she retired. This was her choice. (Just to get the obvious out of the way: I'll be referring to this movie as Hobbs & Shaw.)

I've only seen one Fast & Furious movie (the first), so I can't speak to the relationship between this spin-off and the series. I enjoyed the trailers, and didn't mind that my wife chose this for our weekly outing. (She gave me a choice between this and Men in Black: International, and I'm glad she gave me the chance to avoid that one ... I didn't even care for the first two, after which I quit watching them.) The Rock has such great charisma that he can get you through some pretty bad movies (although I've only seen half-a-dozen, none of which were classics). I also appreciate Jason Statham, whose martial arts work sets him apart from the usual blow-'em-up destructo pictures (although again, I haven't seen all that many of his movies, and none of them were classics, either). It will come as no surprise, then, that Hobbs & Shaw is no classic. But it's fun in a goofy way, and Vanessa Kirby, who is an actual actress, was believable as the ass-kicking women. Idris Elba rounds out the main cast ... he's a good villain, although unlike with Johnson or Statham, I feel like Elba is wasted in movies like this.

Hobbs & Shaw isn't The Raid or Fury Road, but that's a high standard. It's good enough.

I should say a word about how we saw the movie: it was our first time experiencing Dolby Cinema. We give it two thumbs up ... picture great, sound great, rumbling seats great. I recommend trying it out if you are seeing the kind of movie that might benefit from it, if you can find a theater (this is AMC's product).


scanners (david cronenberg, 1981)

This cult film is generally considered the first time David Cronenberg connected with a larger audience ... his next film was Videodrome. I'm not a big fan of Cronenberg, although I thought A History of Violence was terrific. So while I can appreciate the importance of Scanners as an early sign from a respected film maker, it didn't do much for me.

The main problem was the acting (in fairness, some people thought the acting was fine). More specifically, the acting when scanners used their powers was ludicrous. The actors were forced to overact with their facial muscles, and it didn't work, at least not for me. The final scene, which featured two scanners in a battle to the death, was the most ridiculous of all ... if one actor overdoing the facial palsy was too much, two actors was over the top.

Patrick McGoohan has shown many times over what a fine actor he is, and he comes across best here, precisely because he is not a scanner, which means he gets to use all of his acting skills rather than just his face. Michael Ironside is another actor who has proven himself over time, and he has some good moments here, but he is also a scanner, which means he is often handicapped by having to rely on his face. Meanwhile, there's Stephen Lack, a painter with little acting experience, which is clear in Scanners, and Jennifer O'Neill, best remembered for her long "Cover Girl" advertising work. No, the acting isn't great in Scanners.

Still, there is the most famous scene, and I'm going to spoil it here, so don't look if you're planning on watching Scanners any time soon.


geezer cinema/film fatales #58: the farewell (lulu wang, 2019)

The latest movie in the weekly trip to the theater that my wife and I have started since she retired. This was my choice. I only recognized two names from the cast, Awkwafina and Tzi Ma, and knew nothing about writer/director Lulu Wang. What I did know is that the film has gotten excellent reviews, which is usually good enough for me. Having now seen The Farewell, I can say those accolades were well-deserved.

The Farewell is the kind of movie I often describe as being known for what it is not. While it is sentimental, it is not overly so, and that emotion does not overwhelm the film. It is touching but not smarmy. You might think a movie about a grandmother dying will be predictable, but The Farewell is surprising without seeming random. Events occur in a natural way, without ever falling into cliché. In essence, The Farewell is a movie that will be appreciated by most people, even if the premise doesn't sound like your cup of tea.

The acting has a lot to do with the film's successes. Awkwafina rises to the challenge of carrying a movie, although the supporting cast is very strong and she is never carrying things on her own. Even better is Zhao Shuzhen as the grandmother. While she is apparently a fairly big star in China, the 75-year-old actor is making what is, to the best of my knowledge, her feature film debut (at the least, it's her first American movie). Everything I say about the film's positive qualities is demonstrated in her performance: emotional, but also funny, touching, but also knowing, unpredictable in the way a character and an actor can make believable. I would also be remiss if I didn't mention Diana Lin, another actor I'd never heard of, who is excellent as a woman who holds her emotions in check.

There's no telling what went on during the making of the movie, but when an entire cast shines, I assume the director had a lot to do with it. Since Wang also wrote the dialogue, I'd say she is the number one reason The Farewell is so good.

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series. I'm going to have to update this soon.)


geezer cinema: spider-man: far from home (jon watts, 2019)

Various things have had me occupied away from the blog, so this is a bit late ... we watched it more than a week ago. It's the third in a series I've decided to call Geezer Cinema, a planned once-weekly trip to the movies for my wife and I now that we are both retired. (The first two were John Wick: Chapter 3 and Booksmart, chosen by my wife and I respectively.) Spider-Man: Far from Home was my wife's choice. I'll be brief, since it's been so long since I saw it.

I wrote about the first film in this Spider-Man series:

Homecoming has a few things that distinguish it. Tom Holland is the youngest actor of the century to play Peter Parker. Parker/Spidey is a fairly enjoyable character. I don't know ... I liked it more than I did the Raimis, although that may just be my lowered expectations. Bonus points for the supporting cast, which includes Michael Keaton, Marisa Tomei, Zendaya, Donald Glover, Bokeem Woodbine, Tyne Daly, Hannibal Buress, Martin Starr, and the voice of Jennifer Connelly.

Far from Home continues the winning streak. Holland and his character remain appealing. Tomei, Zendaya, and Starr return, and are joined by Samuel L. Jackson, Cobie Smulders, and Jon Favreau from earlier Marvel Cinematic Universe movies. Jake Gyllenhaal plays Mysterio, and J.B. Smoove turns up as well. Zendaya is becoming a favorite of mine due to her performance on HBO's Euphoria, and it was fun to see her once again in the "Kirsten Dunst" role.

I'm not too concerned with how this fits into the MCU ... I mostly judge these movies on their own merit. Far from Home is one of the better ones. At first, I thought too much time was spent on the Lives of High Schoolers angle, but it had some solid emotional payoffs at the end. If, like me, you aren't a big Marvel guy, you might like this one nonetheless.


political films

Another list. This time, we were asked to name our favorite political films, leaving us to define "political". There was a complicated point system that allowed for different numbers of movies in a response. In my case, I voted for ten movies, with points totaling 100 and no film getting more than 30 points. Here is my ballot, with points and a link to my reviews:

The Sorrow and the Pity 30 points
The Rules of the Game 20
The Passion of Joan of Arc 15
4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days 14
The Lives of Others 13
The Battle of Chile (Parts 1 & 2) 3
Harlan County, USA 2
The Leopard 1
The Battle of Algiers 1
Wild in the Streets 1 (Oddly, I've never written about this movie, although I assigned it once in a class)

Here are the top ten in the final poll, with links when relevant:

  1. The Manchurian Candidate (1962)
  2. Dr. Strangelove (1964)
  3. Election (1999)
  4. The Battle of Algiers (1966)
  5. Nashville (1975)
  6. All the President’s Men (1976)
  7. Paths of Glory (1957)
  8. The Rules of the Game (1939)
  9. 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days (2007)
  10. Do the Right Thing (1989)


overlooked

This post comes under the Pointless List category. Indiewire just posted "The 100 Best Movies of the Decade". Along with this, they "asked our panel of film critics to pick the one overlooked film of the past 10 years that they most hope people will find, rediscover, or reconsider in the future." What follows is ten movies I think fit under the parameters of their question. None of these made their Top 100 of the Decade. None made their Overlooked survey. Having said that, here are some movies from the 2010s that I seem to have liked more than others. Not sure that makes them overlooked ... you've heard of a couple of these, I imagine. Each movie includes a link to when I wrote about them. There is no particular order, except that I think The Square is the best movie on this list.