geezer cinema: knives out (rian johnson, 2019)

I guess when you've done something 20 times, it's more than a goof. Knives Out is the 20th movie my wife and I have watched under the "Geezer Cinema" category, wherein we try to go to the movies once a week, beginning when she retired.

Knives Out isn't a great movie, but it's better than you expect, and that is good enough. You expect one of those all-star nostalgic Agatha Christie movies, that work their way through retread material that appeals to the extent is reminds you of all the other such movies you've seen. What makes Knives Out different is that it uses the format as a template, but the cast and the tricks aren't stale. Rian Johnson makes it all seem fresh, which wouldn't seem possible. There is enough to satisfy the fans of the old school, but Johnson goes beyond the old, and everyone is having so much fun, you can't help but be entertained.

As is often the case with all-star casts, some people get the short end of the stick ... otherwise, you'd have a four-hour movie. Among the actors who deserved more, if not better: Don Johnson, Toni Collette, LaKeith Stanfield, Katherine Langford, and even Frank Oz. Most movies would kill for such a cast, yet in Knives Out, those are the ones who have the smallest parts. Meanwhile, people like Christopher Plummer, Michael Shannon, Chris Evans, and especially Daniel Craig and Ana de Armas really get to shine (if anyone is the true standout, it's de Armas ... it's her movie).

Johnson gives his movie a modicum of class consciousness ... not enough to rattle the nostalgia fiends, but enough to give the film something extra. There's really nothing remarkable about Knives Out, but it's very well done and it's just quirky enough to raise it above the normal giant-cast mystery.

Here is a Letterboxd page with all 20 Geezer Cinema movies so far:

film fatales #68: detroit (kathryn bigelow, 2017)

I've been a fan of Kathryn Bigelow's forever (her second feature, Near Dark, which happens to be my favorite, came out more than 30 years ago). Her Oscar for The Hurt Locker means she will forever be an important part of film history. I missed out on Detroit when it was released, but I rectified that last night, and I have now seen all ten features directed by Bigelow. I believe that is my personal high: most films I've seen by a director that is also all of their movies. (It's not that she's better than Jean Renoir, but I've got a couple of dozen of his movies I haven't yet seen.)

The core of Detroit is a long, excruciatingly tense reconstruction of the Algiers Motel incident, where a group of police and National Guardsmen terrorized a group of young people, mostly black, killing three of them. Bigelow uses a documentary, "you are there" style, showing how frightening the situation was to the victims. The Incident dominates the film ... context is provided, but ultimately, what matters is that we see what happened at the Algiers without flinching. It's a necessary, if uncomfortable, film. And it has obvious relevance today, when police killing of black citizens is as bad as it ever was.

Bigelow's decision to be a fly on the wall means some of the characters' actions are incompletely explained. Perhaps explanation is impossible. John Boyega (Attack the Block) is the one African-American among the invading force, a security guard caught up in events. Boyega does a great job of showing the confusion his character is feeling, but we never really understand his actions, the way we do with the racist cops. The racists are part of the problem, too, in that their characters are largely explained by saying "they're racists".

Some interesting names, many from TV, are in the cast, given varying amounts of things to do. Besides Boyega, there's Will Poulter (Black Mirror: Bandersnatch), Samira Wiley (Orange Is the New Black), Kaitlyn Dever (Justified), Anthony Mackie (Avengers movies), Gbenga Akinnagbe (The Wire), Chris Coy (The Deuce), and John Krasinski (The Office).

Near Dark remains my favorite Kathryn Bigelow movie, and I'm not sure she's ever made a complete classic. But her last three movies, The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty, and Detroit, made at an age (57-66) when a lot of directors are past their prime, are indicative of her quality.

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)

geezer cinema: ford v ferrari (james mangold, 2019)

A "based on a true story" movie that takes its share of creative license without going too far astray. It's the story of Ford's attempt to win the 24 hour race at Le Mans. Historical figures like Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon), Ken Miles (Christian Bale), Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal), Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts), and Enzo Ferrari (Remo Girone) show up, while sturdy actors like Caitriona Balfe (Outlander) and Ray McKinnon (everything) provide support.

James Mangold (Logan) keeps things moving (no pun intended), so the 2 1/2 hours rarely bores the viewer. I love Caitriona Balfe, and I've never seen her on the big screen outside of Super 8 (and I admit I don't remember her in that). The problem is, she plays The Wife, which means she's largely irrelevant. As is too often the case, they might as well have left the women out of the movie, since she is only there to give depth to The Husband, and the film could have been a bit shorter without her.

The two leads are believable ... Damon has said his main reason for making the movie was so he could work with Bale. Damon even sounds like a Texan, at least to my Californian ears. Ford v Ferrari has to be entertaining, because there isn't much else to it ... it's not the deepest movie of the year. But not all entertainment needs to be deep.

film fatales #67: paris is burning (jennie livingston, 1990)

This is the latest film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20", "A 33 week long challenge where the goal each week is to watch a previously unseen feature length film from a specified category." Week 13 is called "New Queer Cinema Week":

The second in a series celebrating challenges from past seasons, this challenge comes to us from kurt k's Counterfeit Letterboxd Season Challenge: 2016-17. The original description:

"Pride season is finally starting! This is a week that I know a couple of people (including me) have wanted. New Queer Cinema is a movement that started mainly around the late 80's to early 90's, where a bunch of LGBTQ film makers started creating independent movies that often dealt with rejection of a hetero-normative and cis-normative lifestyle. These movies don't sum up every LGBTQ person's experience, but I would say that it speaks to us."

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen New Queer Cinema film.

Paris Is Burning is a documentary about balls held by the LGBTQ community. It was filmed in the late-80s, and represents the ball culture of that time. To the extent it is an accurate representation, it serves as an important artifact of the culture. It is an artifact, though ... director Jennie Livingston was not part of the culture herself, although she was/is an out lesbian. She and her film are sympathetic to the people she shows us, but it matters for some that she's an observer rather than a participant, always the interviewer, never the interviewee.

Paris Is Burning celebrates the balls and performers. They are presented as artists who take pride in their work. Of course, the balls aren't the whole world, and when the outside world marks its spots, the film turns tragic, most specifically in the case of Venus Xtravaganza, who is one of the most disarmingly lovely people in the movie. She talks about her dreams, and also about the things she does to survive (prostitution being the main thing). We learn near the end of the film that she was murdered, a case that has never been solved.

Many of the people strive to emulate the straight world in their performances, which automatically has an ironic distancing effect. But Venus also says, "I would like to be a spoiled rich white girl. They get what they want, whenever they want it. They don't have to really struggle with finances, nice things, nice clothes, and they don't have to have that as a problem."

Livingston has never released another feature that she directed, although she has made shorts, taught, won fellowships, and was a consultant on the TV series Pose.

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)

by request: captain america: the first avenger (joe johnston, 2011)

My wife watches all of the Marvel stuff. I watch some of it. My favorite artifact from the Marvel Cinematic Universe is the television series Agent Carter with Hayley Atwell, so my wife has been bugging me for years to watch The First Avenger, which features Carter/Atwell's largest part in a Marvel film. I finally broke down, and I'm glad I did.

It's a standard movie for much of its length, more like a James Bond movie than an Avengers movie, and I mean that as a compliment. After a decade of these movies, it's refreshing to watch one with only one hero (well, one plus Agent Carter). I have actually enjoyed most of the movies I've seen from the Marvel Cinematic Universe ... I thought Black Panther was a terrific movie, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse also excellent (although I'm not sure it's in the Universe), and outside of the Guardians of the Galaxy movies, which didn't do much for me, I've found something to like about the rest. And it's no small thing to keep a series going as long as Marvel has without cranking out stinkers.

But outside of the two I just mentioned, I have no real desire to watch the Marvel movies a second or third time. They're better than OK, but they aren't great.

losing it at the movies: nashville (robert altman, 1975)

Picking this up after another long break, this is the eighth in a series, "Losing It at the Movies," which is explained here.

In 5001 Nights at the Movies, Pauline Kael wrote of Nashville:

The funniest epic vision of America ever to reach the screen. Robert Altman’s movie is at once a Grand Hotel-style narrative, with 24 linked characters; a country-and-Western musical; a documentary essay on Nashville and American life; a meditation on the love affair between performers and audiences; and an Altman party. In the opening sequences, when Altman’s people—the performers we associate with him because he has used them in ways no one else would think of, and they’ve been filtered through his sensibility—start arriving, and pile up in a traffic jam on the way from the airport to the city, the movie suggests the circus procession at the non-ending of 8 1/2. But Altman’s clowns are far more autonomous; they move and intermingle freely, and the whole movie is their procession. The basic script is by Joan Tewkesbury, but the actors have been encouraged to work up material for their roles, and not only do they do their own singing but most of them wrote their own songs—and wrote them in character. The songs distill the singers’ lives, as the pantomimes and theatrical performances did for the actors in Children of Paradise.

The reason Nashville was included in the "Kael Festival" is obvious. Kael originally reviewed a rough cut of the film ... she was a big supporter of Altman's work, and he arranged a viewing hoping she might create some buzz. Her subsequent review (Molly Haskell called it a "dithyramb", and yes, I had to look up the meaning ... a "piece of writing that bursts with enthusiasm") certainly got people's attention. (Wikipedia refers to it as a "preview", since it preceded the film's actual release for a longish time.)

My opinion of Nashville has varied over the years, for one simple reason: I never know how to take the film's stance regarding country music. The rest of the movie deserves the highest praise, and that has always been true for me. But the idea of having actors write and perform their own songs, which makes a certain sense in terms of their characters, means we get a lot of mediocre-at-best music, presented as if it was beloved by country fans. This viewing, I guess I was feeling magnanimous, because the music didn't bother me as much as usual.

Henry Gibson is a good example. His portrayal of country icon Haven Hamilton, something like a Porter Wagoner, is wonderful. He acts with his eyes ... his disapproval is a scary thing. And there is something phony about Haven, who defines unctuous. Except by the end of the film, you realize that Haven's love for the music's culture and its fans is real ... he isn't really phony, even though he is playing a role. Gibson gives Haven status (ironic given Gibson/Haven's short height). But Gibson is a pretty poor singer. I could forgive this, because his songs are wonderfully obvious (interesting that most of his songs were written, not by Gibson, but by Richard Baskin). But I can't quit complaining about the way Nashville presents country fans as a group that loves bad singing ... it's insulting to the fans. But again, Gibson knocks it out of the park.

Some of the actors are better singers and songwriters than others ... David Carradine won an Oscar for Best Song for this picture. And Ronee Blakley is an actual singer ... I'm not a big fan of her music, but in Nashville, when she lets her voice run free, it's a beautiful thing, plus Blakley's performance won her a deserved Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress (the idea of a supporting actor is pretty silly with Nashville, which features 24 supporting parts and no leads).

And Carradine also wrote "It Don't Worry Me", which pops up more than once, including the emotional finale, when Barbara Harris, whose character has seemed like a bimbo throughout, rises to the occasion with the most moving segment in the entire movie.

The performances are variable, but none of them are bad ... it's more that there are too many characters and so some aren't fleshed out. Of particular note, besides Gibson, Blakley, and Harris, I'd mention Lily Tomlin, Gwen Welles, and Keenan Wynn.

The Long Goodbye is my favorite Robert Altman film, but Nashville is a strong second.

a woman's face (gustaf molander, 1938)

This is the latest film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20", "A 33 week long challenge where the goal each week is to watch a previously unseen feature length film from a specified category." Week 12 is called "Classic Performers: Ingrid Bergman":

A major name in both American and European cinema, Ingrid Bergman is often considered one of the greatest performers to have ever graced the screen. From notable American classics like Casablanca and Spellbound to her work with Roberto Rossellini in Italian neorealist mainstays such as Stromboli and Europa '51, Bergman filled the screen with emotion that is hard to be matched.

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen film starring Ingrid Bergman.

In 1936, Molander and Bergman worked together on the original Intermezzo. Two years later, at 23, Bergman was in A Woman's Face, a silly bit of nonsense, from a French play, about a woman with a scarred face who changes from a bad person to a good one when she receives an operation that turns her face into Ingrid Bergman's. You have to admire the dedication it took to make Ingrid Bergman ugly for a good portion of the picture.


Bergman does an excellent job of turning her ugliness (she was burned in a fire as a child) outward into a life of crime in a blackmail ring. She also does what she can to make her transition from bad to good seem believable ... it's almost matter-of-fact in the script, but Bergman makes the change gradual and she connects emotionally with the audience. It's also fun to see how Bergman is allowed to be physically big ... at times she seems like the tallest person in the room, and even when her face is disfigured, she commands the screen. It's interesting how the "ugly" woman is always trying to hide her face but uses her body to dominate.

Remade in English a few years later with Joan Crawford.

geezer cinema: light from light (paul harrill, 2019)

Small film, the kind that does the festival circuit and then, as often as not, disappears. The big name in the cast is stand-up comedian Jim Gaffigan, who underplays nicely. The female lead is Marin Ireland, a Tony-nominated stage actress who turns up in a few movies and TV episodes every year without becoming anywhere near a household name. She's the best thing about the movie, quietly intelligent and modestly emotional when necessary.

Paul Harrill, who also wrote the film, seems determined to keep things low-key. It's a ghost story but not really, with the seeming supernatural touches existing only to help illuminate the characters, suffering from various forms of grief. In fact, if someone stumbled into Light from Light expecting special effects and scary moments, they would be disappointed in the extreme. The movie is only 82 minutes and moves slowly, yet I was surprised when it ended ... despite the pacing, I felt like things were just getting started. I thought we'd seen maybe an hour, yet in fact it was over. This is not a bad thing ... Harrill ends things at precisely the right moment, with nothing resolved but with the sense that the characters in the film have learned something about themselves. The audience has learned about the characters, too. It's a cautious character study that never overwhelms ... indeed, it never intends to.

revisiting the passion of joan of arc (carl theodor dreyer, 1928)

Back in 2012, when I took part in a group that chose our favorite films of all time, I had The Passion of Joan of Arc at #15. It is the best film of 1928, and it gets my vote as the best film of the silent era. It is #17 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time. I thought it was time to break out my as-yet unseen Blu-ray copy of Criterion's release. Here is what I said about the film in 2012:

There are all sorts of markers that, I suspect, convince people to avoid a particular movie. If “everyone” says the movie is a classic, you might tire of their enthusiasm. Maybe it’s a silent movie and you don’t think you like those, or it’s in black & white and you think you don’t like those. Maybe it has a religious theme, and you aren’t ready to be converted. And maybe you read comments like those that appear in this group, where week after week we recommend this or that movie, and at some point you realize there is no way you’re going to keep up with our suggestions, and no way to ensure you’ll actually like the ones you watch. And so, when I tell you that The Passion of Joan of Arc is a justifiably great classic film, that when I say it’s great I don’t mean great like The Social Network but I mean great like Hamlet or The Great Gatsby or Born to Run, when I note that, as Pauline Kael wrote, this is “one of the greatest of all movies” … this time, it isn’t hyperbole. Falconetti, who plays Joan of Arc, never appeared in another movie, but she went out with a bang … her performance here is unparalleled. In addition to all of the above, you have likely never seen a film that looks quite like this one.

Jean Cocteau said The Passion of Joan of Arc was “an historical document from an era in which the cinema didn’t exist.” This perfectly explains the odd feeling we get watching the film, which is like a cinéma vérité documentary, except we know it can’t be. What is equally odd is that the film feels so “real” yet there is nothing realistic about it stylistically. As Dreyer said, “What counted was getting the spectator absorbed in the past; the means were multifarious and new.” The actors wore no make-up, and the film was shot in sequence, all of which added to the documentary feel. But Dreyer’s use of close-ups draws our attention; we are constantly aware of the manipulation of the camera.

Meanwhile, there is Falconetti. I’m suspicious when someone says “it’s great, but I can’t put the reason into words.” I usually assume the person is merely trying to disguise the way their subjective response affects their judgment. (I’m all in favor of subjective responses, I just don’t think they should be disguised.) I am also suspicious when someone uses a version of the “end of story” trick, wherein discussion is closed without any real explanation for what has been said (end of story). Yet, the truth is, I can’t describe Falconetti; she has to be seen. And even Kael, who was never at a loss for words, is left with nothing except to state that “Falconetti’s Joan may be the finest performance ever recorded on film.”

I would add a brief note regarding something I was not aware of. Apparently there is some disagreement about what speed to show the movie, either 20 frames per second or 24. I don't pretend to understand the details (there is an excellent supplement on the Blu-ray that discusses this). I can tell you that the 24 fps version is "shorter" because it runs faster. I watched the 20 fps version.

film fatales #66: fleabag (tony grech-smith and vicky jones, 2019)

This is the National Theatre Live production, which is a straightforward filmed version of the play in its final run. It's a hybrid, offered solely because Phoebe Waller-Bridge, and her creation, Fleabag, have become iconic. (To avoid confusion for those who are unfamiliar with it, "Fleabag" refers to both the play/show and to the main character.) Fleabag was originally a one-woman stage show. Waller-Bridge converted it into a TV series of 12 episodes over two seasons, winning acclaim and lots of awards. She has a lot on her plate, and had moved on from Fleabag, but she completed the circle by returning to the stage for a brief run of the one-woman show. This was filmed and shown on movie theater screens ... like I said, it's a hybrid, part play, part movie.

Fleabag doesn't necessarily benefit from being stuffed into a genre, so I should just let it go and not worry if it's a Film Fatale or even if it's a film at all. It's Fleabag, most closely attached to the first season of the TV series, which was an expansion of the original play.

I don't have much to add to my earlier reactions to Fleabag the series. About the most distinctive aspect of the series, I wrote, "Fleabag makes frequent use of breaking the fourth wall. It works wonderfully, in part because Waller-Bridge has such an expressive face that she conveys multitudes even when she doesn't say anything. We become her partners in crime, so to speak, connecting to the character in much deeper ways than is usual for a 'comedy'." Seeing the stage play (via movie theater ... OK, I'll quit), I see why Waller-Bridge might have opted for breaking the fourth wall, for on the stage, Fleabag speaks directly to the audience pretty much non-stop. Waller-Bridge turns that direct speech into confidential connections that aren't non-stop but usually surprising, even when you expect them. The intimacy of the series is lessened a bit in the play with its constant narration. But Fleabag is out in the open in the play ... there's nowhere to hide.

It's all bare bones. I list two directors above, but I'm not sure even that is accurate. Vicky Jones directed the play, Tony Grech-Smith did the camera for the broadcast. I'll cheat, call this a movie, point us in the direction of Jones, and call this a Film Fatale.

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)