geezer cinema/film fatales #61: hustlers (lorene scafaria, 2019)

I have to admit, I was hoping for more. Hustlers is perfectly acceptable, but I thought it would be really good, based on the reviews. Jennifer Lopez is fine ... like the movie, there's nothing wrong with her performance, but I was expecting something Oscar-worthy, and I didn't see it. (She's not even the main actress ... she's got a shot at Best Supporting Actress, but Constance Wu is the lead.) She has a star power the rest of the actors lack ... when she makes her first appearance at the strip club, wearing a thong, and men start throwing money at her, it's believable, and there is more to her in Hustlers than her ass. But again, not earthshaking.

I thought I would be watching a movie about women's friendships with each other, and it's there, but it's more toxic than I expected. They take care of each other when things are good, and when the financial crisis hits, they band together to support each other. Banding together means getting back at men, and the men deserve it, but there's less of a revenge angle than you might think. I don't know, it all felt a bit by the numbers.

Looking at the above, I see that I wanted one kind of movie and I got another. Ultimately, that's on me. Hustlers is OK, and you might think it is better than OK. I was disappointed, though. Shout out to Cardi B, who made the most of her brief appearances ... I wanted to see more from her.

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)

demonicus (jay woelfel, 2001)

This is the second 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 2 is called "Sword and Sorcery Week":

A genre that may seem simplistic and finite, yet is actually filled with unlimited potential for entertainment and allegory. I would suggest trying to stray away from the Lord of the Rings series for this challenge, but really, if you live under a rock and haven't seen them, you probably should use this as an opportunity to do so.

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen Sword and Sorcery film.

If memory serves, I chose movies for this challenge by looking at suggested possibilities and selecting the shortest movies that were available to me, whether by streaming or my owning the film. Two movies on the Sword and Sorcery list came in at 72 minutes ... Demonicus was on Amazon. Voila!

It was pretty awful. On the one hand, challenges like this offer an opportunity to watch something that might not have otherwise gotten my attention. On the other hand, there's a reason I didn't know Demonicus ... it's a bad movie in a genre I tend to ignore, not because the genre stinks but rather because it's not my cup of tea. (Of the 161 films on the Sword and Sorcery list, I've only seen 8, including Demonicus.)

The plot isn't exactly complicated ... Wikipedia sums it up in two sentences ("A group of young students lost in the Italian Alps become victims of an ancient Gladiator curse. One of the students becomes possessed and hunts down the rest.") It got an R rating for gore. Apparently, there is a director's cut (!). I don't know which version I saw.

The acting is competent, which isn't guaranteed for these kinds of pictures. It cost $40,000, and I guess you could say that every penny is on the screen. Not much is known about the people involved. Director Jay Woelfel co-directed a brief 4-minute proposal for a new Battlestar Galactica put together by Richard Hatch (this was before the Ron Moore breakthrough). Actress Venesa Talor made some soft porn movies and made some records, including the immortal "Who Do I Have to Blow?" (she's a better singer than actor). That's about it. It's "better" than Robot Monster, but I won't ever watch it again, while I catch up with Robot Monster every couple of years.

by request: the goldfinch (john crowley, 2019)

The latest in the series of movies six of us watch together, taking turns picking. We've been doing it for seven years, although this is only the 27th movie ... hard to find a date and time we can all make. (Trying this for the first time ... if this works, you can find a Letterboxd version of the list here.)

The Goldfinch is a good example of why our project is a good one. We all have different tastes, and so I end up seeing good movies I might have bypassed otherwise: Argo, American Hustle, Love & Mercy, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Of course, there's also the time my brother-in-law chose Mr. Peabody & Sherman.

The advance notices on The Goldfinch were not promising. Its Metacritic rating currently sits at 41/100. While I'm happy to watch long movies at home, where I can pause and pee (I've watched two movies recently that are longer than The Goldfinch, one of which, Rocco and His Brothers, I liked OK), I don't look forward to long movies in the theater. This is why I have an app on my phone called RunPee, which suggests the best times to duck out for a minute or two when nature calls. This wasn't particularly encouraging when it came to The Goldfinch ... the app said "This movie was slow paced, making it fairly easy to get 3 Peetimes due to the length of the movie – 2 & 1/2 hours." Which is convenient, but compare it to this, about Hobbs & Shaw: "It was difficult finding decent Peetimes in the 1st half of this movie. There’s a lot going on: action, character development, etc."

Then, in the morning before we left for the movie, Google thought I'd be interested in an article, "‘The Goldfinch’ Bombs Hard at U.S. Box Office".

So, I did two things. First, about an hour before the movie started, I ate an edible. Then, just as the movie started, I took a caffeine tablet. I was ready: high, and awake.

Thus, you can take my comments here with a grain of salt, if you think being high and awake disqualifies me.

The good parts: I didn't fall asleep. I enjoyed Finn Wolfhard. Nicole Kidman did well with an underwritten part. The film looked good.

The rest: It was really long. It made little sense for people like me who had not read the novel. Not all of the acting was as good as Wolfhard and Kidman. And did I mention it was really long?

Sometimes when I don't connect with a movie, I'll think kindly of it because I think the film makers achieved what they set out to accomplish, and chalk my reaction up to taste preferences (the Terrence Malick Rule). But I don't think the rule applies with The Goldfinch, not when you have actors from the film like Sarah Paulson ("In my dream world, they would have made this a four-part miniseries" and Ansel Elgort (who wished the film was a play) suggesting the movie was misguided.

blade runner 2049 (denis villeneuve, 2017)

What to make of Denis Villeneuve? I've now seen six of his movies, loved one (Incendies), liked three others very much, and didn't care for two of them, including Blade Runner 2049. I'd start with the length of his films ... Blade Runner 2049 is the longest at 163 minutes ... except I also didn't like the shortest one (Enemy, 91 minutes). So it's probably not the length, but recency bias steps in here ... Blade Runner 2049 is way too long. Don't take my word for it ... Ridley Scott said he would have cut out half an hour (of course, he would have subsequently re-edited it several times) (that's a joke, son), and Villeneuve agreed that it was too long, adding that he had made "the most expensive art house movie in cinema history". Honestly, that's what I liked best about Blade Runner 2049, that someone had given Villeneuve 150 million dollars and he came up with this movie. I can only imagine what the studio must have thought when they saw the final product.

Blade Runner 2049 moves so slowly it's like a Hollywood version of a Tarkovsky film. And not one of his good ones. There are a couple of plot twists that wake up the audience, and it's nice when Harrison Ford finally turns up. The film looks great. The legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins won an overdue Oscar on his 13th try. Having just finished binge-watching Halt and Catch Fire, I enjoyed the brief appearances of Mackenzie Davis. I'm running out of good things to say.

One thing that always disappointed me about the original Blade Runner was that I thought it missed a lot of what Philip K. Dick brought to the novel. I don't know if this is a good sign or a bad one, but I never gave any thought to Dick while watching 2049. It's point of reference was always the Ridley Scott movie, not Dick's book.

I admire Villeneuve's willingness to make an expensive art house film. I just didn't care much for the result. Critics disagree ... it's currently #692 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century.

geezer cinema: official secrets (gavin hood, 2019)

Official Secrets is a based-on-fact story that, as far as I can tell, is reasonably close to what actually happened. Catherine Gun, a translator who works for British Intelligence, leaks a top secret memo that suggests the upcoming 2003 invasion of Iraq is illegal. Gun gave the memo to an activist friend who gave it to a journalist. Once the story became front page news, Gun confessed, and she was charged with breaking the Official Secrets Act.

Gavin Hood (Eye in the Sky) wrote the screenplay with Gregory and Sara Bernstein, and they manage to keep things from getting too confusing. The script is clearly on Gun's side, which will bother you or not, depending on your own take. Keira Knightley is in serious mode ... the film itself is pretty serious ... her presence makes us care about what happens to Catherine. There is a level of tension throughout, although the conclusion is almost a shaggy dog story (not that Hood could do anything about it ... it's what actually happened). The movie is solid, no more, no less, a decent outing if nothing else.

The cast includes Ralph Fiennes and a variety of "That Guys": Indira Varma, Matthew Goode, Matt Smith, Rhys Ifans, Tamsin Greig, Conleth Hill.

shadows in paradise (aki kaurismäki, 1986)

This is the first official 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 1 is called "Past Hosts Week":

Starting off strong with a tribute to our past hosts. Without Monsieur Flynn, we wouldn't have the Season Challenge, and without kurt k, we wouldn't be as far along as we are now. Typically this type of challenge takes place towards the end of the season, but since this is an anniversary year, it seemed fitting to have it front and center.

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen film from either Monsieur Flynn's Movies to See Before Your End Credits list or kurt k's Personal Canon list.

I like to think my movie viewing is pretty varied, but this week's film is a great example of what I hope to gain from taking part in this challenge. Shadows in Paradise is from Finland. In 2012, Yle, the Finnish national public broadcasting company, came up with a list of the best Finnish films of all time. Until I watched Shadows in Paradise, I had never seen a movie on that list. Clearly, the Season Challenge has helped me expand my horizons.

Actually, I have seen another Finnish film, Le Havre. As it turns out, that movie came from Aki Kaurismäki, the director of Shadows in Paradise. So I have now seen two films from Finland, both by the same director.

Much of what I wrote about Le Havre holds true here, as well:

A slight film that proudly displays its seemingly humble story.... Kaurismäki trusts in the essential humanity of his characters … no one is perfect or even particularly successful ... The humor in the film is so deadpan I barely noticed it, but that’s in keeping with the low-key charms of the movie. And the tone is far from the kind of dreary realism the above might suggest. In fact, there is a level of romance and fantasy that Kaurismäki wouldn’t get away with if he weren’t so skillful at making us like his characters without feeling manipulated.

Slight, humble, human, deadpan, low-key ... all can be said of Shadows in Paradise. I missed a lot of the humor, which is the norm for me, but David Thomson got off a good line when he wrote, "Kaurismäki can be very funny—so long as no one laughs." There are no laugh-out-loud moments, and no one smiles, much less laughs, in the film. But it somehow skirts dreariness, even though the main characters seem ready to break out of their admittedly dreary lives. Kati Outinen felt new to me, although it turns out she was in Le Havre, as well. She has an interesting, non-actorish face, and she was one of the best things about Shadows in Paradise. The movie goes by in only 74 minutes ... I was going to say "breezes by", but that's not an accurate description for how the movie plays. I liked it without being bowled over by it, which may be precisely what Kaurismäki was after.

rocco and his brothers (luchino visconti, 1960)

At this point, Rocco and His Brothers is considered a cinema classic (#170 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time). It is sprawling in more ways than one, running almost three hours and broken into five segments, one for each brother, blending an operatic feeling with the tail end of Italian neo-realism (there is a lot of Rocco in Mean Streets). Roger Ebert wrote, "It is a combination that should not work, but does, between operatic melodrama and seamy social realism, which at no point in its 177-minute running time seem to clash, although they should. We buy the whole overwrought package, the quiet truth, the flamboyant excess, even the undercurrent of homoeroticism that Visconti never quite reconciles. The excitement of the film is that so much is happening, in so many different ways, all struggling to find a fusion."

It's an accurate description of the film, but for me, the absence of reconciliation between the various parts of the package, the inability to "find a fusion", brings Rocco and His Brothers down a notch. There are individual scenes of great power, but there is also an imbalance of tone that Visconti can't or won't overcome. Alain Delon is once again the most beautiful thing on the screen (he was 25), and if you want to be kind you can say he effectively underplays his part. I'm never sure if Delon is acting, and while his prettiness makes up for a lot, it doesn't add depth to his character. Katina Paxinou is over the top as Mamma, close to stereotype as the Italian mother who reacts emotionally to everything, yelling and crying. I found myself wishing she would quit turning up on the screen.

Annie Girardot, on the other hand, is the best thing about the movie. She plays a whore who gets involved with two of the brothers, and her character is just as much a stereotype as Mamma. But Girardot shows the human side of her character, and Visconti gives her room. Paxinou is brought down by the stereotype ... Girardot overcomes it. She is so good, she even rises above an unfortunate rape subplot.

Rocco and His Brothers is influential, expansive, full of wonderful moments. It falls short for me ... I much prefer The Leopard. But that shouldn't diminish the real accomplishments of Rocco.

revisiting the beast from 20,000 fathoms (eugène lourié, 1953)

I have a phrase I use to describe movies, often from my youth, that are better than you might think: An All-Time Classic. It gets confusing, though, because often I use the phrase ironically: "Robot Monster is an all-time classic!" Lately, I've brought up The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms a few times, eliciting eye rolls from my wife, who can't always tell if I'm serious. But in this case, I mean it. I'll just cut-and-paste from what I wrote back in 2010:

This was a favorite of mine when I was a kid, and the surprise is that it doesn’t suck. The effects by Ray Harryhausen are fine, and the script is functional. Of course, it’s harder to appreciate this movie than it used to be, because it spawned so many similar (and worse) ones. But this was the first: the first movie where atomic testing unleashed a monster from the deep, even predating Godzilla. Besides the bomb and the monster, there’s the dedicated professor, the kindly scientist, and the scientist’s assistant who happens to be a woman (and who happens to like the professor). There’s the no-nonsense military man … there’s the monster rampaging through a big city … and then, to top it off, there’s Lee Van Cleef, only a year into his movie career, showing up in the last scene as the sharpshooter who saves the day and kills the monster. I’m sure I had no idea who Lee Van Cleef was when I was a kid, so that’s a nice added touch beyond the nostalgia factor.

Director Eugène Lourié got his start working with Jean Renoir, which is irrelevant but Renoir is always good when you're trying to promote an all-time classic. The movie was as good today as it was in 2010, and as it was all the other times I saw it back to when I was a kid.

geezer cinema: toy story 4 (josh cooley, 2019)

When I was a kid, I used to love to play with windup toys. I'd crank them up and watch them perform. Didn't matter what they did ... clap cymbals together, whatever. It wasn't what they did that interested me. No, what I liked was when they started to run down. They'd get slower and slower, and I'd imagine them begging me to wind them up again before they quit, but I never did. I wanted to watch them die. And in my little kid mind, that's what was happening, not that they were toys who ran down, but that they were things I knew that died. I'd even feel something resembling sadness when they quit moving. And then, if I wasn't too bored, I'd wind it up and start all over again. It wasn't about me ... it was about the toy, about the fading away.

The Toy Story franchise is not about kids, other than as objects of toys' affection. The movies assume that kids will grow up, that they will find new toys to play with, that they will eventually outgrow toys completely. The Toy Story movies tell the tale from the point of view of the toys. Andy is a young boy in Toy Story, by Toy Story 3 he is going off to college. We barely ever see Andy, or any other humans. Andy exists to illuminate the lives of his toys.

And the biggest fear of a toy is that they will be abandoned, that their person won't play with them anymore, that they'll get stuffed into the corner of a closet. Or worse ... the incinerator scene in Toy Story 3 is one of the most terrifying things you'll ever see in a "cartoon".

Toy Story 4 suggests that there can more things to aspire to than being some kid's toy. The need to belong is intense. It's pretty much the emotional basis of a toy's life. And you are always at the mercy of your boy or girl. This feeling doesn't disappear in Toy Story 4 ... much of the plot revolves around attempts to pair toys with kids. But alternatives also present themselves. Woody, the exemplar of the toy who does everything for his owner, decides to join his love, Bo Peep, to find new owners for stray toys. He finds meaning not through a human, but through a fellow toy.

This is perhaps too much to dump on a cartoon designed to make billions. It's more important to note how good Toy Story 4 is, how efficient the animation remains, how the voice actors have created full-blooded characters over the four movies. It's also important to note that Toy Story 4 is often funny, which you might not get from all my blathering. (My wife laughed out loud when the cat barfed up a hair ball.) You can just sit back and enjoy the movie ... deep analysis isn't required. But it's worth appreciating that they have now gotten through three sequels and still haven't let the audience down. That's quite an achievement.

le trou (jacques becker, 1960)

This is the first Jacques Becker film I have seen (if I don't count tiny acting roles in movies like Grand Illusion). As far as I can tell, Le Trou is a bit different from his other movies, so I can't make a useful judgement on him as a director based solely on this one. Becker was an assistant to Jean Renoir in the 30s, and you can't get a better education than that.

Le Trou ("The Hole") is based on the true story of an attempted prison escape. Becker uses mostly non-actors ... one of them was a participant in the actual events, as he tells us at the very beginning of the film ("Hello. My friend Jacques Becker recreated a true story in all its detail. My story."). Apparently the detail is very accurate ... Becker built a copy of the prison, helped by some of the escapees. Becker chose his actors well ... they give no sign of being amateurs (and, given the long acting resume of many of them, perhaps there weren't as many non-actors as is rumored).

Despite the longish (132 minutes) running time, Le Trou is compact. The escape attempt is shown in a step-by-step fashion over the course of a few days, which adds to the tension. Much as the prisoners are focused on their attempt, Becker remains focused throughout on the same thing. There is little about prison life, and we learn next to nothing about the prisoners. This isn't a movie about the prison system in France, or about the social milieu that leads men to commit crimes. Instead, the movie starts and ends with the escape attempt itself. These are men doing a job. The problem comes with the introduction of an outsider to their cell just as they are to begin digging. Trust is a key factor among the five. But mostly, Becker avoids anything he might find extraneous. The audience has nothing to hold onto except the escape. #885 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time.