the incredible jessica james (jim strouse, 2017)

This is the tenth 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 10 is called "Contemporary Performers: LaKeith Stanfield Week":

LaKeith Stanfield is of a rare breed that can bring their own brand of energy to any role they embody. It's been a pleasure watching him blow up over the past half decade or so, and I for one am very excited to see how his career progresses.

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen film starring LaKeith Stanfield.

I love the subject of this challenge, because LaKeith Stanfield is a favorite of mine. He's been a standout in supporting roles in excellent films, he's been a standout in lead roles like Sorry to Bother You, he's a standout on the TV series Atlanta. He's fine here, but he's actually not on the screen that much, so while his presence justifies its inclusion for this week's challenge, he's not the reason to watch the movie.

That reason is Jessica Williams, who was a brilliant burst of fresh air during her stint as a Senior Correspondent on The Daily Show. (Some of us hoped she be the replacement for Jon Stewart, although Trevor Noah is excellent.) Williams is the titular star of the film, and is on screen for pretty much its entire running time. She never disappoints, and she makes The Incredible Jessica James the kind of movie you can recommend to friends.

But ultimately, The Incredible Jessica James is a run-of-the-mill rom-com with good performances. It's fairly harmless, which is both why it is easy to recommend and why it doesn't amount to much in the end. I wanted to like the movie ... heck, I did like the movie. But I had much higher hopes.


geezer cinema: no time to die (cary joji fukunaga, 2021)

In 2006, I wrote, about Casino Royale:

As played by Daniel Craig, James Bond is more than a little bit of a thug. He wasn’t born to wear a tuxedo … You used to be able to start a review of a 007 movie by saying “we come to these movies because …” followed by the writer’s own theories on the topic. Who knows why people will go to Casino Royale, but what they’ll get is different from what they used to get in Bond films. Casino Royale is a movie first, a James Bond movie second, and after so many decades, that’s a good thing. But it’s a better movie for being a James Bond movie, because we bring our own preconceptions to the character, and watching them deconstruct and then begin to reassemble is more fascinating than if the main character was named Joe Blow.

It's interesting to read the above, now that Craig's run is over, because one reason No Time to Die is more emotionally involving than the usual Bond film is because the preconceptions we've always had are, by this point, informed as much by Craig as by any of the other actors to take on the role. In Casino Royale, we got our first look at the "different" Bond, and now, we see where that Bond ended up. (The middle 007 films with Craig were Quantum of Solace, Skyfall, which before No Time to Die spent the most time on character development, and Spectre.) The Craig Bonds in general have tried to be not just 007 movies but also just movies, and this approach is rewarded in this final installment.

A few women have something to do with the depth of No Time to Die. I'm not sure we'll ever find out exactly what Phoebe Waller-Bridge contributed, but she has been universally praised by the cast. Lashana Lynch is the first female 00 operative to appear in one of the movies, and she offers a comparison to the very male Bond archetype. And Léa Seydoux returns as the only substantial "Bond Girl" to appear in a second 007 movie. Her performance is strong, and her presence adds to the continuity of the Craig series in general and of Spectre in particular.

No Time to Die is not perfect. Like most of the Craig films, it goes on too long (it is, in fact, the longest-ever James Bond movie at 163 minutes). It's hard to figure out what to eliminate ... you need the action scenes, and without the emotionalism of the character studies, it would be just another Bond film. But when you combine the action scenes and the dramatic scenes, well, that's how you get a 163-minute James Bond movie.

It's no surprise that No Time to Die refers to past 007 movies, obviously including Spectre. What was interesting is that the film that comes up the most is On Her Majesty's Secret Service. It's as if someone decided to finally fix that almost-classic by replacing George Lazenby. They even trot out the famous line "We have all the time in the world" from that movie, and reprise Louis Armstrong's version of the song of the same name which was featured in OHMSS.

And speaking of music:

[Letterboxd list of James Bond movies]


revisiting the 9s: spirited away (hayao miyazaki, 2001)

[This is the fourth 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 2003, I wrote:

I'm forever searching for films that reflect what I think of as the world of Philip K. Dick novels. Movies based on Dick books rarely meet my approval, but once in awhile, some other picture will find the psychedelic spirit of Dick's best work. You don't expect to find it in a "children's movie," for sure, but I take what I can get. There are a bunch of astonishing creatures in Spirited Away, and most of them would make sense as intergalactic beings from a PKD novel. My favorites were the little soot thingies ... that's what they are, soot with arms and legs ... but there's plenty more where that came from.

Over the past month on holiday, I re-read five Philip K. Dick novels (he's my go-to writer on trips, because I have so many of his books on my Kindle). Re-watching Spirited Away in that context, locked in as I was to the Dick spirit, meant I easily understood my long-ago comparison of the movie to Dick. But I also appreciated the way Miyazaki explores his own kind of weirdness. Spirited Away strikes me as even more of a fantasy than is usual for the master. Certainly Miyazaki works within the fantasy genre. But where something like My Neighbor Totoro places its characters in a seemingly ordinary home, from which they venture out into a magical forest, in Spirited Away, the family is on their way to their new home, but they don't make it. The magic and fantasy begins right from the start, as the parents turn into pigs. There isn't a lot to hold onto in Spirited Away, if you want at least a grasp of the "real world".

I complained about Holy Motors being unapproachable ... you have to accept the vision of Leos Carax, because that's all there is. Spirited Away is equally demanding of the audience ... without Miyazaki's vision, all you have is pretty pictures (and Holy Motors has a lot of pretty pictures, too). But Miyazaki invites us into his vision. He welcomes an audience, where Carax gives the impression that he doesn't care about that audience. The result is that I resisted Holy Motors, but I embraced Spirited Away completely.

I should note that I watched the English dub this time, if that makes a difference. I didn't recognize any of the famous voices, which means they did a good job. As for the "revisiting the 9s" angle, I have no idea why I didn't give this movie my highest rating back in 2003. Perhaps I really do have some subconscious inability to fully appreciate movies that aren't 50 years old. Spirited Away gets a 10/10. It is my favorite Ghibli movie after Princess Mononoke. #6 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century, and #159 on the all-time list. Oscar winner for Best Animated Feature.

[Letterboxd list of Studio Ghibli movies I have seen]


holy motors (leos carax, 2012)

Holy Motors is one of the most acclaimed movies of the 21st century, ranked #11 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the21st century, and #285 on their all-time list. Director Leos Carax is an icon of his era. I had only seen one of his movies prior to Holy Motors, Mauvais Sang, which I saw so long ago I hadn't even begun this endless blog yet (I don't remember why, but apparently I didn't like it). Holy Motors has an intriguing, cultish cast, not just Denis Lavant (ever-present in the films of Carax) but also people like Eva Mendes and Kylie Minogue. Best of all is Edith Scob, who was an icon herself for her appearance in Eyes Without a Face:

Eyes without a face

In Holy Motors, Scob, who by that time was in her 70s, plays a limousine driver who takes a man on various "appointments", in the manner of Mr. Phelps in the Mission Impossible TV series. Carax loves to make reference to films he has loved, and ... spoiler alert ... in the last scene, Scob's character puts on a mask that looks like the one from Eyes Without a Face. Honestly, the mask in the Carax film seems pointless, but it was nonetheless my favorite part of the entire movie.

Holy Motors is not the kind of movie you come to hoping for a clear narrative, or even a narrative at all. It consists of a series of scenes (of the "appointments") that are connected by the presence of "Mr. Oscar" (Lavant), who is (or may be) an actor. For each appointment, he changes his look (he has an entire makeup and costume workspace in the limousine) and takes part in some event that may (or may not be) "real". Lavant is remarkable, it is true, and a few of the appointments are more interesting than others.

Champions of Holy Motors speak to its visual beauty and innovative structure. And Carax is rewarded for not doing the same old thing as everyone else. Manohla Dargis wrote, "It’s an episodic work of great visual invention — from scene to scene, you never see what’s coming — that reminds you just how drearily conventional many movies are."

Holy Motors is in the time-honored tradition of Movies That Are Not for Steven. It seems that Carax has gotten exactly what he wanted from the film, which is more rare than it should be, and which deserves praise. I can't say Holy Motors is bad, which might imply incompetence, and Carax is in full control. I can only say that I didn't much like it.


geezer cinema/film fatales #124: birds of prey (and the fantabulous emancipation of one harley quinn) (cathy yan, 2020)

This is the ninth 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 9 is called "Leftover Candy Week":

While making this Season's Challenge, I reviewed some of the early years for inspiration. With the years prior to my hostile takeover, the LSC lists, especially the original, included a good amount of weeks dedicated to ideas from lists made by members of the Letterboxd community. So, I figured I'd tap into those Challenge's and I'm starting with this wonderful Candy Cinema list by Cole Thompson. There are a number of lists of this ilk on the site, but this one really nails the vibes it's looking to represent. If you're out of Halloween candy, here's one last piece for your eyes.

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen Candy Cinema film from Cole Thompson's list. (Films that have vivid colourful cinematography/production design/costume design/overall art direction as a strong presence in its filmmaking. They tend to use the full spectrum of colour or focus on one particular colour that dominates the film.)

Let's end the suspense ... Birds of Prey is an awful movie. Mick LaSalle's negative review, titled "Movies don’t get any worse than ‘Birds of Prey.’ This is the bottom", is very quotable. He called it "more than horrible. It should not exist. Money should never have been raised for it. The screenplay should never have been filmed. Margot Robbie shouldn’t have produced it. She certainly shouldn’t have starred in it. It’s just a terrible thing to inflict on audiences, who, after all, didn’t hurt anyone and just hoped to have a nice time." Definitely a case of "tell us what you really thought, Mick".

It took me about ten minutes to realize Birds of Prey sucked, so I guess you could say those first minutes were OK. And there's a fight scene near the end that is pretty good. But mostly, it sucked. In fairness, it's a fine choice for this week's challenge ... it has vivid design and makes good use of color. But mostly, I watched with my jaw open at the realization that I was watching a bad movie.

I liked The Suicide Squad, so if you're looking for a Harley Quinn fix, go there. Even better, watch Michelle Yeoh, Anita Mui, and Maggie Cheung in The Heroic Trio:


the ghost of yotsuya (nobuo nakagawa, 1959)

This is the eighth 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 8 is called "J-Horror Week":

From Wikipedia:

"Japanese horror (also known as J-horror) is horror fiction arising from popular culture in Japan, generally noted for its unique thematic and conventional treatment of the horror genre differing from the traditional Western representation of horror. Mediums in which Japanese horror fiction is showcased include literature, film, anime, video games, and artwork. Japanese horror tends to focus on psychological horror, tension building (suspense), and supernatural horror, particularly involving ghosts (yūrei) and poltergeists. Other Japanese horror fiction contains themes of folk religion such as possession, exorcism, shamanism, precognition, and yōkai."

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen J-Horror film.

Yotsuya Kaidan has been called the most famous Japanese ghost story of all time, dating back to its first appearance as a kabuki play in 1825. It has been made into numerous films, starting in 1912, and Nakagawa's version is often considered the best. Nakagawa directed more than 100 movies in his career, including several horror films in the late-50s/early-60s. I came to The Ghost of Yotsuya as a beginner ... for me, it was just another Japanese horror movie, since I didn't have the cultural context the story carries with Japanese audiences. It was occasionally hard to follow, but in a good way ... it added to the supernatural elements in the film.

There are murders from the start, but the ghosts only emerge gradually. Much of the film is interesting, but without the horror aspect I expected. It's almost a character study for much of its running time. But when the ghosts come out, the supernatural horror moves to the front, building on what has come before. There is a visual splendor whenever the film moves outdoors, but most of the time, we're inside with the characters.

The Ghost of Yotsuya might appeal more to an arthouse audience than to one looking for gore and horror, but it succeeds on either level.

Among the choices of others for the Challenge was Kuroneko.


kansas city confidential (phil karlson, 1952)

I had downloaded a few movies from various services that I could watch from Europe, assuming those services might not work outside the U.S. But they didn't work as hoped, leaving me with no movies to watch. I finally hit on a solution, and searched YouTube for full-length movies. Kansas City Confidential, a minor cult noir that inspired Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs, had long been in the public domain, so there were plenty of copies, and a couple were of decent quality, so I watched it.

It's a tough little thriller, with some brutal action and a tricky plot about a bank heist. Director Phil Karlson keeps things simple ... when the plot drags a bit, he tosses in some beatings to liven it up. Bosley Crowther's New York Times is review is unintentionally hilarious:

[T]he practice of brutality in this unenlightening dossier on crime is not confined to the lawless and shady personalities that almost exclusively people it. There is an obvious and sickening implication that the Kansas City police are not only rough when they capture a suspect, but they exercise a wicked "third degree." There is one character in this little run-down, supposedly a plainclothes cop, who is as nasty and sadistic in behavior as the hero or any of the thugs. This, of course, does not lend a climate of hope or moral uplift to the film.

The film is enlivened by an interesting cast. John Payne had been a star in some musicals, and was most famous for his role in Miracle on 34th Street. He is effective as the guy who is set up to take the blame for the heist. Coleen Gray had been in Nightmare Alley and Red River. The team of thieves includes Jack Elam, Lee Van Cleef, and Neville Brand at the beginning of their careers.

There isn't much that stands out, although the connection to Reservoir Dogs is easy to see. The film is marred by a happy ending, but up until that point, it's violent enough to keep your attention, if you like that sort of thing.


devil's partner (charles r. rondeau, 1961)

This is the seventh 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 7 is called "Hades' Choice Week":

What the Hell?!

Alt. take: Beelze-busted!

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen film prominently featuring the Devil.

Junk, but watchable, if only barely. If you and a couple of friends made this movie and showed it to your other friends, they would likely be amazed that you were able to pull off an actual feature film. But the competition isn't home movies, it's movies like Roger Corman's Creature from the Haunted Sea, with which Devil's Partner was released as part of a double-feature. Devil's Partner is competent, but it completely lacks any of the goofy fun that Corman regularly turned out. This can happen when both of your screenwriters are making their debuts as writers (neither ever wrote another film). Director Charles R. Rondeau was a prolific television director whose five feature films were nondescript.

The plot has an unlikeable old man dying mysteriously in a small town, after which his nephew turns up and insinuates himself into the community. He's up to no good, and soon lots of people are dying in unusual ways (being chased down and stomped by a horse is particularly silly). Rondeau and company do what they can to hold things together ... as I say, it's a competent movie, it just lacks anything beyond that basic competence. The acting is decent, with a couple of recognizable faces (Ed Nelson, Edgar "Uncle Joe" Buchanan). Still, as is often the case with such movies, the best thing is that it's only 73 minutes, so you won't be wasting too much of your time.


human experiments (gregory goodell, 1979)

This is the sixth 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 6 is called "Video Nasty Week":

Let's get nasty. From Wikipedia:

Video nasty is a colloquial term popularized by the National Viewers' and Listeners' Association (NVALA) in the United Kingdom to refer to a number of films, typically low-budget horror and exploitation films, distributed on video cassette that were criticized for their violent content by the press, social commentators and various religious organizations in the early 1980s. These video releases were not brought before the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) due to a loophole in film classification laws that allowed videos to bypass the review process. The resulting uncensored video releases led to public debate concerning the availability of these films to children due to the unregulated nature of the market.

Following a campaign led by Mary Whitehouse and the NVALA, prosecutions were commenced against individuals engaged in trades exploiting allegedly obscene videos. To assist local authorities in identifying obscene films, the Director of Public Prosecutions released a list of 72 films the office believed to violate the Obscene Publications Act 1959. This list included films that had either been previously acquitted of obscenity or already obtained BBFC certification. In addition, a second list was released that contained an additional 82 titles which were not believed to lead to obscenity convictions but could nonetheless be confiscated under the Act's forfeiture laws. The resultant confusion regarding the definition of obscene material led to Parliament passing the Video Recordings Act 1984, which required certification of video releases by the BBFC.

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen Video Nasty movie.

I admit I'd never heard of the "Video Nasty" before this. I decided Human Experiments would be a horror movie, but it's closer to the Women in Prison genre. And it's not the best one. The main thing Human Experiments has going for it is Linda Haynes in the lead. Haynes was underused during her time as an actor, but she shows in this film that she could have done more than she was asked.

Some interesting names are scattered throughout the supporting cast. Geoffrey Lewis, who seemed to be in every other Clint Eastwood movie and was the father of Juliette, plays the doctor performing the experiments of the title. He underplays nicely. Ellen Travolta (John's sister) is featured. Radio legend Lurene Tuttle is "Granny". Aldo Ray and Jackie Coogan turn up in the beginning as good-old-boy cops, but they disappear a few minutes into the film, never to be seen again.

Outside of Haynes, there's nothing much to see here, but it's only 82 minutes.


the raven (lew landers, 1935)

This is the fifth 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 5 is called "Universal Monster Week":

The originators of the form here in American horror, the Universal Monster series offers up...scares? Well, they used to, anyway. For the most part, they're now fun novelties to look back upon and maybe even poke fun at if you're into that sort of thing.

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen Universal Monster movie.

There are a couple of Universal Monster films that are legit classics ... for me, the two James Whale/Boris Karloff pictures Frankenstein and The Bride of Frankenstein top the list. There are other good ones, and at the least, Universal provided a base that ensured even the lesser pictures were OK. The Raven is one of those lesser movies, and to be honest, it's only borderline OK.

The plot is silly, designed solely to stuff the name Edgar Allan Poe into the picture. Bela Lugosi plays a deranged doctor with a Poe obsession, and that's pretty much the extent of Poe's influence on the movie.  Lugosi's doctor has recreated some of the torture devices featured in Poe's stories, most notably one from "The Pit and the Pendulum". Boris Karloff plays an escaped murderer who, via silly plot shenanigans, is forced to do Lugosi's billing (the doctor has a name, but face it, the characters are essentially "Lugosi" and "Karloff"). Some of the frights are scary enough, and the movie only lasts a minute longer than one hour, so it's not a burden to watch it. But Lugosi's hammy overacting is worse than usual, overshadowing Karloff's usual touching portrayal of a monstrous person. There is nothing here to excite anyone other than Universal completists.

 Other Challenge choices included The Incredible Shrinking Man.