geezer cinema: the good liar (bill condon, 2019)

There is nothing wrong with The Good Liar, and there are a couple of identifiable good things that will at the least please a certain segment of the film-going audience. If a movie starring two venerable English actors showing what they can do in a plot that features a twist or two sounds like something you'd like to see, you're probably right. (Of course, I could be describing the Olivier/Caine Sleuth.) Russell Tovey acquits himself well along with the Dame and the Sir. And Jim "Carson" Carter of Downton Abbey fame has a sizable role. Like I say, nothing wrong ... The Good Liar is harmless.

Nonetheless, there are no overwhelming reasons to see The Good Liar. If you need a Helen Mirren fix, The Long Good Friday or Gosford Park are better. If you want to see Ian McKellen, Gods and Monsters is a good one, and it is also directed by Bill Condon. In fact, if you only take one thing away from this post, it is that you should see Gods and Monsters, which also features the criminally underrated Brendan Fraser.

music friday/film fatales #65: who took the bomp? le tigre on tour (kerthy fix, 2010)

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 11 is called "Oscilloscope Laboratories Week":

Initially, I had this week marked down as A24 week, yet I feel they already get plenty of attention, especially 'round these Letterboxd parts. So, I figured I would shine the spotlight on a smaller studio developing and distributing some lesser known, yet still quality films from creators in it for the art of storytelling.

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen Oscilloscope Laboratories film.

If this Challenge is supposed to be a learning experience, than there may be no better example than this week, for I had no idea what Oscilloscope Laboratories was. The company was co-founded in 2008 by the late Beastie Boy, Adam Yauch. It seems to be best defined by a list of its productions, and it turns out, I had seen five of their movies: Wendy and Lucy, The Messenger, Exit Through the Gift Shop, Wuthering Heights (2011), and We Need to Talk About Kevin. The timing was good for Who Took the Bomp?, since I had spent the weekend attending Sleater-Kinney concerts, and Kathleen Hanna of Le Tigre was a charter member of the iconic riot grrrl band Bikini Kill. Who Took the Bomp? offers an intriguing backstage look at Le Tigre, as they took their final world tour in the mid-2000s. There is some strong concert footage, but what adds a special feel to the film is that Le Tigre, as a band and as individuals, are pretty funny. They are also dead serious ... this was a band rooted in left-wing politics, especially addressing gender and LGBTQ issues. It's a short, instructive, and entertaining film, and if it isn't much more than that, in the moment that feels like enough.

Here is one of Le Tigre's videos, "TKO":

And here, something from Who Took the Bomp?:

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)

war and peace (sergey bondarchuk, 1966)

There was an episode of Cheers where Sam Malone, worried that he might lose Diane Chambers to a literature professor, decides to read War and Peace so he'll have something to talk about when the group gets together (the book is recommended by self-proclaimed know-it-all Cliff Claven, who says it's the greatest novel ever written). Sam actually manages to get the book read, which impresses Diane. At the episode's end, she suggests they go see the movie version. "THERE'S A MOVIE? Cliff! I'll kill him!"

The movie to which Diane refers is probably the 208-minute, 1956 American production starring Audrey Hepburn, which made enough of an international impression that the Soviets decided they needed to make their own version of the classic Russian novel. With the support of the Soviet government, that War and Peace ended up with a running time of 431 minutes. A recent restoration was just released on Criterion, and while I was aware that this was one of those "see it on the big screen" pictures, my 66-year-old bladder couldn't imagine sitting in a theater for 7 hours straight. So I bought the Blu-ray and sat down to plan my approach.

At which time, I found out that Sergey Bondarchuk's massive film was originally released in four parts over the course of two years.

I felt like Sam Malone, only happy ... "THERE'S FOUR PARTS? I can watch one a day!"

War and Peace is a tremendous spectacle that spends much of its time on the personal relations between the main characters. I feared it would be akin to Doctor Zhivago, another epic film from a novel about historical Russia, and Doctor Zhivago is not one of my favorite films. But I am pleased to note that Bondarchuk's War and Peace is far superior to Zhivago, maintaining interest throughout its long running time, while offering some of the best epic scenes ever.

I assumed that this famous adaptation of the famous novel would have been highly acclaimed, and indeed, it won an Oscar for Best Foreign Film. But you won't find it on many of the lists I cite here so often. You won't find it on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time (it is currently at #1065). And in retrospect, I can see why, at least from my point of view. I've rarely liked big expensive historical epics ... I really did think it would be as poor as Doctor Zhivago. That doesn't explain why it isn't very highly regarded critically (although again, I don't want to overstate that ... #1065 is pretty good).

To be more specific about what works (and doesn't) ... the epic scale is impressive, not just in battle scenes but in more domestic extravagances like balls. Much of the acting is good, and ballerina Lyudmila Savelyeva is exquisite as Natasha. Bondarchuk occasionally uses effectively off-beat visual techniques. On the other hand, Bondarchuk as Pierre is a weak link.

War and Peace should be seen once. I'd say once is enough, though.

geezer cinema: linda ronstadt: the sound of my voice (rob epstein and jeffrey friedman, 2019)

The Sound of My Voice suffers from some of the usual problems that come with documentaries about musicians. Most notably, we never get a full version of any songs, just excerpts. We get plenty of examples of Linda Ronstadt's remarkable voice, but each time, we're left wanting more.

Still, this is preferable to standard biopics that invent life events to match the songs the artist produces. And you don't have to worry about someone else singing for Ronstadt ... that's her on the soundtrack.

Ronstadt fans can rest assured, though. They will enjoy the musical moments, and the presentation of her life in music is straightforward, if mostly on her side. You will come away with a better understanding of why Ronstadt moved so easily between so many genres. As she says at one point, "People would think I was trying to remake myself, but I never invented myself in the first place." Gilbert & Sullivan, classic pop standards, Mexican canciones, all of these were part of her musical upbringing. However it might have seemed to audiences, Ronstadt was just singing what she knew.

The film presents a who's who of musicians and industry people who rhapsodize about Ronstadt. There is, in fact, too much of this ... every repeated gushing story takes the place of the music we came to hear.

Epstein and Friedman sidestep the issue of Ronstadt's tour of South Africa during the cultural boycott of that country. It is mentioned once, she gives a brief statement about politics and singing, and it's forgotten.

The Sound of My Voice isn't great, but fans won't care. And the final scene, of Ronstadt singing gently with family as she suffers from Parkinson's disease, is moving.

For those who want to read a detailed analysis of Ronstadt's music from a critic/fan, I recommend the 1978 essay "Living in the USA" by John Rockwell.

lessons of darkness (werner herzog, 1992)

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 10 is called "Cinéma-vérité Week":

From Wikipedia:

"Cinéma vérité (French: [sinema veʁite]; 'truthful cinema') is a style of documentary filmmaking, invented by Jean Rouch, inspired by Dziga Vertov's theory about Kino-Pravda. It combines improvisation with the use of the camera to unveil truth or highlight subjects hidden behind crude reality. It is sometimes called observational cinema, if understood as pure direct cinema: mainly without a narrator's voice-over. There are subtle, yet important, differences among terms expressing similar concepts. Direct Cinema is largely concerned with the recording of events in which the subject and audience become unaware of the camera's presence: operating within what Bill Nichols, an American historian and theoretician of documentary film, calls the "observational mode", a fly on the wall. Many therefore see a paradox in drawing attention away from the presence of the camera and simultaneously interfering in the reality it registers when attempting to discover a cinematic truth. Cinéma vérité can involve stylized set-ups and the interaction between the filmmaker and the subject, even to the point of provocation. Some argue that the obvious presence of the filmmaker and camera was seen by most cinéma vérité filmmakers as the best way to reveal the truth in cinema. The camera is always acknowledged, for it performs the raw act of filming real objects, people, and events in a confrontational way. The filmmaker's intention was to represent the truth in what he or she was seeing as objectively as possible, freeing people from any deceptions in how those aspects of life were formerly presented to them. From this perspective, the filmmaker should be the catalyst of a situation. Few agree on the meanings of these terms, even the filmmakers whose films are being described."

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen Cinéma-vérité film.

OK, let's deal with the Challenge parameters first. I didn't notice that the movies were supposed to be feature length, and Lessons of Darkness is only 54 minutes. But I got it from the above mentioned list of Cinéma-vérité films, so blame them. Also, while even Wikipedia struggles to define cinéma vérité in an exact manner, it's not clear to me that Lessons of Darkness qualifies. According to the IMDB, Herzog "prefers to think of this as a science fiction film, not a documentary."

None of this is particularly relevant, except as a comment on the Challenge.

If you need a genre, Lessons of Darkness is a documentary presented as science fiction. Herzog uses beautiful/ugly visuals to construct Earth as if it were seen from another planet, and he provides no context beyond the suggestion that the movie takes place after a man-made apocalypse, a la Mad Max movies. In fact, it's Kuwait after the Gulf War, and oil is the predominant image. Oil is everywhere ... as Herzog-as-narrator says, "This was once a forest before it was covered with oil. Everything that looks like water is in actuality oil. Ponds and lakes are spread out all over the land. The oil is treacherous because it reflects the sky. The oil is trying to disguise itself as water." Oil is the ugly side of beautiful. Much of the film consists of long aerial shots of the terrain, and they are hypnotic.

This is not a hopeful movie. At times, it seems like Herzog is recreating the time when dinosaurs roamed the earth (one segment is titled "Dinosaurs on the Go"), only now, the dinosaurs are the big machines operated by oil workers. Without context, there is no telling how this apocalypse took place, or why it wouldn't take place again. Herzog finds beauty in the land, but it's hopeless beauty.

i am cuba (mikhail kalatozov, 1964)

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 9 is called "ASC 100 Milestone Films Week":

Here, the American Society of Cinematographers have rounded up the films from the 20th century that stand out in terms of their achievement in the art of visual storytelling. So keep your eyes on the screen and be amazed.

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen film from the ASC's list of 100 Milestone Films of the 20th Century.

I Am Cuba is a film about the Cuban revolution, sponsored by the Soviet Union with a Soviet director.

Neither Cuba nor the Soviets approved of film, as noted on the IMDB site:

Both the Soviets and the Cubans were disappointed in the film. In Cuba, it is referred to as "I am NOT Cuba". They never felt it was a portrait of themselves - but, rather a depiction of Cuba imposed on them by the Soviet Union. Soviet Union wanted to make a straight-forward propaganda film. They felt the director Mikhail Kalatozov made an 'art' film instead.

Both countries are right. The Cuban people in the movie never rise above stereotypes: the prostitute, the farmer, the student. And while there is plenty of "art" in I Am Cuba, it presents itself as a ironic contrast to what the Soviets probably thought they were paying for. America is consistently shown in a negative manner, but at times the Western style seems pretty darned cool. All of this is important because I Am Cuba got practically no distribution at the time. The Soviets didn't like it, the Cubans didn't like it, and the Americans were in the middle of a Cold War. It wasn't rediscovered (or rather, discovered) until the mid-90s.

I Am Cuba is a terrific example of great cinematography (Sergey Urusevskiy is credited) ... it it certainly a milestone. I only hesitate to include these clips because the quality isn't great, which does a disservice to the cinematography. But at least you get the idea. First, the opening of the film. Watch the long take that begins a little more than 2 minutes in. And watch until the end, keeping in mind this was the early 1960s.

And my favorite of all the long takes:

And if that isn't enough, Raquel Revuelta plays "Cuba" ... it is she who narrates, always returning to "I Am Cuba". #343 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time.

swing time (george stevens, 1936)

Generally considered one of the two best Fred and Ginger movies (along with my favorite, Top Hat). An Oscar winner for "The Way You Look Tonight", which is perfectly sung by Astaire, but which is a bit spoiled by the fact that Rogers has her head covered in shampoo during the scene. The score, by Dorothy Fields and Jerome Kern, also includes "Pick Yourself Up", "A Fine Romance", and "Never Gonna Dance". The plot is the usual Fred and Ginger trifle ... the plot is never the point of their movies.

The dance highlight is "Never Gonna Dance" (many of these clips are of poor quality, especially unfortunate since Criterion has recently released a restored version):

The most famous dance in the movie is "Bojangles of Harlem", a tour de force as a dance and as a production, that is problematic because Astaire wears blackface. This time, it's hard to get a clip that shows the entire number, so here's an excerpt:

Finally, here is probably the best dance number in the film, "Waltz in Swing Time":

Bonus, because I can never resist posting it again: the greatest scene in Fred and Ginger history, one that never fails to bring tears to my eyes:

geezer cinema: terminator: dark fate (tim miller, 2019)

The reviews are mediocre, and the film cost so much that it's been called a box office bomb because it "only" made $29 million on its first weekend (the top box office draw, but that's not enough). I'm not sure what the problem is. It's not as good as Terminator 2: Judgment Day, but then, T2 wasn't as good as The Terminator, which remains the only classic of the bunch. I guess people have expectations.

You might say Tim Miller is up against another Miller, George, of Mad Max fame. Thirty years after the heyday of Mad Max movies, George Miller made Mad Max: Fury Road, which is not only the best film in the series, but the best movie period over the last decade. Just as Dark Fate isn't as good as the first two Terminator movies, it's no match for Fury Road. But honestly, so what?

Mackenzie Davis kicks ass at the beginning of the movie, and I am a big fan of hers since Halt and Catch Fire, so maybe I'm easily pleased. Much is made of the return of Linda Hamilton, and she is great, but for me, Davis is the highlight. The rest of the movie? Well, there are some good action sequences, it's fun to see Hamilton and Arnold together again, and if the plot is confusing, what the heck. If you don't come in expecting a return to the original (or the equal of Fury Road), you'll enjoy Dark Fate. It's no classic, but I bet in ten years, people will wonder why Dark Fate got a bad reputation.

film fatales #64: tig notaro: happy to be here (tig notaro, 2018)

Not sure if this qualifies as a movie ... where do you put stand-up comedy specials that run an hour or so? I'm calling it a movie, what the heck.

There is no confusion about the guiding light behind Happy to Be Here: Tig Notaro wrote it, directed it, and starred in what is essentially a one-woman show. Which is to say, it's a stand-up special. You don't come to Happy to Be Here worrying about the cinematography, you just want to know if it's funny. And comedy is perhaps more subjective than most genres. But Notaro isn't just about being funny. She deconstructs stand-up. Her jokes are of the shaggy dog variety, as she works her way around the topic, always threatening to reach the punchline, but never quite getting there. The punchline isn't necessarily the point. It's not that she frustrates the audience, but she messes with our expectations in a delightful way. She is not confrontational in Happy to Be Here ... she just wants us to join her on a journey as she tells us some stories that are funny. But the stories aren't the funniest part ... it's the getting there that matters.

The culmination is a long introduction to a special guest, her favorite group, the Indigo Girls. More than before, she plays with the audience, introducing the Indigo Girls only for nothing to happen, after which she teases us for thinking the Indigo Girls would actually show up, then teasing us for thinking they won't show up. This goes on for quite a while: introduction, no show, tease audience a couple of different ways, repeat. It would be a spoiler to tell how the routine ends up, and that in itself is a sign that Notaro is up to something different, for who would think a comedy special could have a spoiler?

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)

death bell (hong-seung yoon, 2008)

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 8 is called "Horrors Crossing Borders Week":

Sometimes, the most horrifying things are those in the unknown. With the added disorientation from a different than usual location and/or language, foreign horror allows us to not only see what other countries and cultures might find horrifying, but to break free of the traditions of our own country's horror spectacles. And, ya know, Halloween.

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen horror film from a country other than the one you originate from/live currently.

Not the finest hour for the Challenge. I figured I was safe ... Korean horror, 88 minutes. Comments suggested a blend of Battle Royale, which I liked, and Saw, which I have avoided and thus don't know the connection. Battle Royale was a violent, over-the-top Hunger Games, and not surprisingly was kinda silly. It was good. Death Bell is violent and over-the-top and silly, but it's not good. The basic setup is intriguing: elite students at a Japanese school must correctly answer quiz questions, with one of them dying for each wrong answer. But there is little suspense, the various students aren't individualized enough to care about them, and the "solution" to the crime is anti-climactic. Not the worst film I've watched in the Challenge, but close. Of course, there is a sequel. Bonus points for a novel use of a washing machine.