film fatales #92: merrily we go to hell (dorothy arzner, 1932)

As you might guess from the title, Merrily We Go to Hell is a Pre-Code movie, directed by Dorothy Arzner (Craig's Wife), which adds a bit of historical context. But it's a good movie in any event.

It's hard, when watching Pre-Code films in 2020, not to spend all your time noting what wouldn't be allowed only a few years later. In the case of Merrily We Go to Hell, the biggest example is that adultery is common throughout. Fredric March plays a reporter and budding playwright, Jerry, who marries rich girl Joan, played by Sylvia Sydney (You Only Live Once). Jerry is an alcoholic, and not a charming one ... this isn't Nick and Nora Charles. After the success of his first play, Jerry falls into the arms of an ex-girlfriend. Nothing is covered with vagaries ... it's clear that he moves in with her and that they are sleeping together. Joan decides their marriage has become "modern", and she starts hanging with a handsome young fellow played by a ninth-billed Cary Grant. There's one party where everyone is paired off that, while not an orgy, is nonetheless clearly something that wouldn't fly once the Code arrived.

It's hard to know if the film has a happy ending. Joan and Jerry are reconciled, but they come back together due to the death of a baby. March and especially Sydney are very good, and Sydney wears some dresses with cleavage that wouldn't even be noticed today but which would likely have not made it past the censors a couple of years later.

For a long time, Dorothy Arzner was the only woman director of note in Hollywood. Her work was rediscovered by feminist scholars in recent times. The character of Joan is an interesting case within this context. She is mistreated by her husband, but she refuses to let him ruin her life. And when reconciliation comes, it's Jerry who comes begging to Joan, not the reverse.

I sense this was meant to be partly a comedy, but as noted, the drinking equates to alcoholism, not charm. It's like The Awful Truth but serious.

(Here is a letterboxd list of Film Fatales movies.)

geezer cinema: john wick: chapter 2 (chad stahelski, 2017)

I've run out of things to say about the John Wick movies. I've watched them out of order ... the first, then the third, now the second. It doesn't matter. When I wrote about Chapter 3, I quoted what I'd written about the original John Wick. And I could pull that quote again and it would fit right in for Chapter 2. What the heck, here's the quote:

John Wick ratchets up the action, to be sure, but not to the extent the Raid movies manage. Also, most of Keanu’s work involves shooting people, and while the body count is impressive, and Keanu’s got the moves, eventually it gets kinda boring watching yet another gun battle/slaughter. Martial arts movies like the Raids offer much more variety, and thus, much less boredom.

Chad Stahelski does a good job with the action scenes ... I bring this up whenever a film maker goes old school, but you always know where you are, which is uncommon these days. Keanu has his unique charisma, and you can tell he's doing most of his own stunts. I have nothing against any of these movies. But I can't tell one from the other. My wife, who chose this for Geezer Cinema, says 2 is the best, 3 the worst. Might as well take her word for it ... she likes them more than I do.

(Letterboxd list of our Geezer Cinema movies.)

revisiting ponyo (hayao miyazaki, 2008)

Back in 2009, I wrote about Ponyo:

The best part about watching this in the theater, even though it was the English-dubbed version, was listening to the kids in the audience. They were enjoying the movie very much, right from the beginning, when the Studio Ghibli logo came on and a kid sitting behind me said to his parent, “it’s Totoro!” You see, I had forgotten Miyazaki makes movies for kids. I assume they’re more like Fantasia, movies for acid heads to enjoy while tripping. Ponyo is neither the best nor the worst Miyazaki movie, which means you should see it.

Not a lot to add to that, except to comment on the viewing situation this time. We watched at home with our 8-year-old grandson. He hasn't seen many movies ... his parents are pretty strict about that. But he has seen Totoro and Kiki's Delivery Service, so he is familiar with Studio Ghibli, and he recently got an illustrated book version of Ponyo, so it was a good time for him to see the movie itself.

The weird thing was, he jabbered the entire movie about what was coming next. OK, that's an 8-year-old. But he had never seen the movie! The book he read, though, was quite accurate to the film, and he enjoyed seeing the animated version of what he'd seen on the page. (Once again, we watched the English dub. I wish they'd use voice actors rather than famous names. It's not that the famous ones are bad, but it's distracting to hear a character and recognize the voice of  Tina Fey or Liam Neeson or Betty White.)

creature feature: godzilla raids again (motoyoshi oda, 1955)

The original Godzilla was a big hit, and Toho Studios wasted little time (less than six months) getting a sequel out. The logic behind bringing Godzilla back from the dead is handled with a reasonable amount of believability, considering we're talking giant monsters here. Turns out the H-bomb tests that awoke the first Godzilla managed to bring more back to life. So in this movie, we get a second Godzilla, along with Anguirus, a quadrupedal monster who gets the privilege of being the first monster to fight Godzilla (in the original film, Godzilla was the only monster). Their battles are OK, given the limitations of having two guys in suits pretending to be monsters. Godzilla dispatches Anguirus, although not before much of Osaka is destroyed. The subtext of Japan being destroyed due to the detritus of nuclear bombs is less clearly a metaphor for Hiroshima and Nagasaki ... there is no explicit anti-American sentiment.

There isn't anything to make Godzilla Raids Again into a classic, but compared to some of the later entries that emphasized kids, it's a tolerable time-waster. There is some silly humorous banter a few times, but mostly, you get two monsters fighting, a city destroyed, and then a novel way to kill off Godzilla once again (this time it involves an avalanche).

The Americanized version was bizarre, as might be expected. It was dubbed instead of subtitled (the version I watched now was subtitled and from the Criterion Collection), with constant narration. For reasons that are not clear, Godzilla is named Gigantis, and the movie is titled Gigantis, the Fire Monster. The American version wasn't released until 1959, on a double bill with Teenagers from Outer Space.

geezer cinema/film fatales #91: lost girls (liz garbus, 2020)

Liz Garbus (What Happened, Miss Simone?) is a documentary film maker, and Lost Girls is one of those "based on a true story" movies, which makes it an interesting choice for Garbus' first fiction film. And sure enough, Lost Girls plays a lot like a documentary, except for the obvious fact that there are actors like Amy Ryan (Gone Baby Gone) rather than the actual people. Ryan is perfectly cast ... well, anytime Amy Ryan is on the screen, she is perfectly cast, because she's a great actress ... she can make you forget she's an actress, which is appropriate for this kind of docudrama.

Which isn't to say that Ryan is low-key here. Her anger throughout is palpable, and it drives a movie that we know from the outset will have no closure (we are informed at the beginning that Lost Girls is "an unsolved american mystery"). Her Mari Gilbert is a mess, but when her eldest daughter disappears, Mari persists in searching for the truth, most often by pressing the police, who aren't good for much. If this were a different story, Gilbert might be plucky ... at one point, a detective calls her "feisty", which amounts to the same thing. But Mari is a bit deranged, which is partly why she is so dedicated to finding what happened to her daughter, but which doesn't really match with a stereotypical pluckiness. But, there is no avoiding the conclusion ... in real life, the culprit has never been found ... and whatever resolution Gilbert achieves must remain philosophical at best.

Stay for the brief words at the end which, in good true-crime fashion, tell us what has happened to the characters since the film's conclusion. There, we learn of one person's closure that is unexpected and unsettling, to say the least.

(Letterboxd list of our Geezer Cinema movies.)

(Here is a letterboxd list of Film Fatales movies.)

chadwick boseman

This is what I wrote about Black Panther in 2018:

african-american directors series: black panther (ryan coogler, 2018)

I'm not sure I'm up to the task of writing about Black Panther, which is so much more than "just" another Marvel superhero movie. Just to address the Marvel-ness of it, I am marginally conversant with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and I mostly like the movies I've seen ... well, I didn't think much of the Guardians of the Galaxy movies, but the rest, sure, they're OK. But I usually only see them because my wife is a fan. Personally, I prefer some of the TV series, especially Agent Carter. So one thing that set Black Panther off from the rest is that I wanted to see it; I didn't wait to be dragged into the theater. And my desire was justified, because Black Panther works on its own as a movie, separate from Marvel mythology.

I was delighted to see how much Oakland love was in the movie. We saw it at a theater less than a mile from the Oakland border (in Emeryville, home of Pixar, who are always putting animated local landmarks in their films), and right at the beginning, when a title tells us we're in Oakland in 1992 while Too $hort's "In the Trunk" plays on the soundtrack, the crowd erupted in applause, a tangible example of how audiences see themselves on the screen when watching Black Panther. (It wasn't shot in Oakland ... I think Atlanta was the location ... but given that director/writer Ryan Coogler was born in Oakland, the visuals are on target.)

Black Panther serves its function as an origin story, and since we're told at the end that the character will be featured in Avengers: Infinity War later this year, it is clear that Marvel is in this for the long haul (it doesn't hurt that Black Panther is already one of the biggest grossing films in history). But Black Panther didn't leave me wanting to see Infinity War, even if my wife inevitably gets me to watch it. I suspect this is because, as I noted, Black Panther works as a movie ... it made me want to see the next Black Panther movie Coogler works on, which isn't the same as wanting to see Infinity War because Black Panther will be in it.

Much has been made of the political statements the film is making. Black Panther wears its political heart on its sleeve. The message of the movie is messy, which accounts for the various disparate explanations of what is going on. But you don't have to dig very deep to start the discussion.

I have read some convincing arguments that Black Panther is ultimately something less than revolutionary in its narrative (the plethora of black filmmakers and actors in the film is revolutionary in itself, of course). Much of the film's thrust involves deciding who will be King of Wakanda, and that decision is based more on hand-to-hand combat than on a reasoned confab on politics. Since Erik Killmonger, who proposes that Wakanda should be sharing its wealth to help liberate the oppressed all around the world, is presented as "The Villain", his revolutionary position is attached to a "bad guy". Supposedly, this taints the radical politics of Killmonger, and I understand why it seems that way.

But people have been rooting for the bad guy for a hundred years of movies. Jack Nicholson's Joker is evil compared to Michael Keaton's Batman, but Nicholson's acting in the film is much more enjoyable than Keaton's, and Batman is a bit of a fascist in that movie anyway, so I didn't have any trouble "rooting" for the Joker. It is true that Keaton's low-key approach to his character allows Nicholson to take over the film, but it is also true that without Nicholson, Burton's Batman would be even darker than it already is.

A comparison of Joker/Batman and Killmonger/Panther doesn't completely work. In Batman, not only does Nicholson dominate the movie, entertaining the audience in the process, but Batman is not a benign leader of men, but instead a fascist. In Black Panther, we are led to think of T'Challa as a good ruler ... he is easier to root for than Bruce Wayne. And while Nicholson overwhelms BatmanBlack Panther is full of strong characters (many of them women) and thrilling performances. One reason it's hard to root for Killmonger is that Chadwick Boseman is himself charismatic ... he makes us want to accept T'Challa's way.

Yet 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.

Of course, those gangster movies weren't making explicit political arguments. It's a sign of the greatness of Black Panther that it is not only a great spectacle (we saw it in IMAX 2D, which I much prefer to 3D), but it inspires discussion after the fact.

african-american directors series: 4 little girls (spike lee, 1997)

Spike Lee has made his name as a top director of fiction films, but he has also made some strong documentaries (I am partial to the two-part series on Katrina and New Orleans). 4 Little Girls was his first full-blown documentary feature, immediately establishing his excellence in this genre.

Lee put the film together for just a million dollars. The key behind-the-camera collaborators were cinematographer Ellen Kuras and editor Sam Pollard. Lee interviewed family, friends, and lawyers ... his small crew helped make the family and friends comfortable. He also intersperses archival material to give context to the events of 1963, when racists bombed a church, killing four young black girls. This material serves to remind the viewer of just how volatile America was at the time (of course, it feels very timely now, as well). Lee gathers an impressive list of people to comment on the times, including Andrew Young, George Wallace, Ossie Davis, Walter Cronkite, Jesse Jackson, and Coretta Scott King. The result is a movie that works as history, while also making an emotional appeal to the audience. Lee obviously has a point of view, but he lets it emerge naturally from the stories of the families.

Lee and Kuras rely a lot on close-ups ... the speakers become real to us. And 4 Little Girls is tight, with no wasted space. It grips you, it forces you to think, and there is no rest during the film's running time.

(Similar to the Film Fatales series, I have begun a Letterboxd list, "Black Directors Matter", that includes movies directed by African-Americans. I've also added a category to blog posts, "African-American Directors".)

creature feature: the man who could cheat death (terence fisher, 1959)

This is a mediocre Hammer film, directed by Terence Fisher (Horror of Dracula). Christopher Lee is the biggest name in the cast, but he isn't the lead ... he's not even the villain. That job goes to Anton Diffring (Circus of Horrors), who was in everything back in the day. Perhaps the most notable member of the cast is Hazel Court, one of the first Scream Queens, and an early example of the kind of actress Hammer liked to put in their movies (i.e., cleavage). Court says they even filmed a brief nude scene "for the European market" ... she's modeling for a sculptor. No copies of that version exist. All we have is one still of a topless Court, which was a big deal in 1959. (In fairness, Court in the nude is still a big deal.) The censors may have succeeded in burying the nudity, but throughout the movie we see a bust of the sculptor's work, which shows Court's assets off quite clearly.

The movie is almost all talk, and thus, almost entirely dreary. The plot is a mishmash of mad scientist and Dorian Gray. None of it is particularly interesting. Among the films it played with in the theaters: The Evil That Is Eve (aka A Kiss for a Killer) and Dr. Terror's House of Horrors. The Man Who Could Cheat Death will cheat you out of 83 minutes of your life, time that is better spent using Google to find that still of Hazel Court (you'll still have 80 minutes left over to do what you want).

by request: blindspotting (carlos lópez estrada, 2018)

I'm sorry I missed this when it came out. It was a time when it felt like Oakland was the center of the movie universe. Oakland's own Ryan Coogler had given us Fruitvale Station and Black Panther ... Bay Area legend Boots Riley directed his first film, Sorry to Bother You ... and there was Blindspotting, perhaps the most Oakland of them all, from Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal. Blindspotting doesn't just have the feel of Oakland, it's shot in Oakland and these people know Oakland.

Which doesn't limit the film, or make it important only for Oaklanders. But Diggs and Casal, who wrote it and star in it, offer their story as both specific and universal. Its examination of identity and race and gentrification connects beyond Oakland, and the two leads inhabit their characters so perfectly that it feels like a "based on a true story" recreation as much as it does a fictional movie.

Of course, while there is a true realism to many of the scenes, Carlos López Estrada isn't afraid to stretch that reality. But Diggs and Casal, who spent nine years writing the screenplay, are not afraid to being things back to basics, leading to intense scenes that expand our knowledge of the characters while getting in the audience's face just as much as the characters are in each other's faces.

It may not be clear from the above, but Blindspotting is also very funny at times, and the mixture of comedy and drama doesn't feel forced. The entire movie is tight. There is a convenient coincidence at the end of the movie that too clearly exists as a plot setup, but I had barely finished rolling my eyes when the most powerful scene in the whole movie emerged. That scene makes excellent use of Diggs' rapping skills ... the writers have made reference to "heightened language", which adds a Shakespearean element to the dialogue while existing within the frame work of rap. Rap sneaks up on you during the film ... the characters break into it on occasion, and again, it feels real, but it also serves as a setup for the climactic scene, which is powerful both for what is being said and for how it is being said.

Here is that scene ... serious spoiler alert, if you haven't seen Blindspotting, don't click on the video. Just go watch the movie.

There were some excellent movies in 2018, including Black Panther, Roma, and Shoplifters. Blindspotting is as good as any of them.

(Letterboxd list of the top movies of 2018)

what i watched

Joker (Todd Phillips, 2019). Interesting, unpleasant take on comic book evil. Joaquin Phoenix does wonders in the title role ... it's clearly intended as Oscar bait (and it worked ... he won the Oscar over Antonio Banderas and others), but Phoenix doesn't take the easy route. He's showy in that Oscar way, but he never invites us in, never turns sympathetic. Compared to the charisma of Jack Nicholson (or Cesar Romero, for that matter), Phoenix's Joker is practically another character. That character is Rupert Pupkin from The King of Comedy, a clear influence on Joker.

There's little attempt to blame society for Joker's problems ... whatever social commentary sneaks into the movie is mostly unrelated to the story of Arthur Fleck, a disturbed individual (although his presence does create the environment for rioting mobs). Arthur had an abusive father and a schizophrenic mother. Phoenix dives right in, and it's something to behold, but as I say, it's unpleasant. I don't know why anyone would watch this a second time. If I did, I might examine why I find Taxi Driver so much better than this film. #919 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century.

Not that it explains anything, but if you watch this scene, note that Arthur works as a clown (hence the outfit), and he suffers from a disorder where he laughs at inappropriate moments.

Geezer Cinema: Project Power (Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, 2020). By-the-numbers futuristic action film with sci-fi elements. Jamie Foxx is allowed to have charisma, and Joseph-Gordon Levitt is good, as always, but Dominique Fishback (The Deuce) steals the film. The rationale for the plot (pills that offer five minutes of superpowers) is silly, although I don't know that anyone making the movie cared. The special effects are solid, it's a passable way to waste two hours, and it sets up a possible sequel. I can't wait.

(Letterboxd list of our Geezer Cinema movies.)