the lady in red (lewis teague, 1979)

This is the seventeenth film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2023-24", "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 9th annual challenge, and my fifth time participating (previous years can be found at "2019-20", "2020-21", "2021-22", and "2022-23"). Week 17 is called "Cream of the Grindhouse Crop Week":

Even though exploitation films overtly sensationalize the lurid subjects they depict, it doesn’t mean the movies have to be bad! After all, arthouse movies from Luis Buñuel, Jean-Luc Godard, Stanley Kubrick and Roman Polanski featured similar content to critical acclaim and were often played alongside exploitation films in Grindhouses, the kind of movie theaters, popular in the 70s, that mostly played exploitation films.

This week let’s watch one of the top movies from the heyday of the Grindhouse era. Even though we’ll be watching in the comfort of our own homes and at a time when easy access and exposure to all kinds of images and films is the norm, let’s imagine what it was like to make our way in the dark to one of these little theaters and see these kinds of images for the first time in the company of a bunch of other curious strangers. Watch a movie that made either the original or updated Top 20 Grindhouse Classics from The Grindhouse Cinema Database or Quentin Tarantino’s personal Top 20 Grindhouse Classics, which he shared with The Grindhouse Cinema Database while filming Inglorious Basterds. All movies featured in all three lists can be found in AlpineSuperstar’s list here.

As is so often the case with movies like this, the trivial angles are more interesting than the actual movie. So let me get the movie itself out of the way. It's good for what it is, a worthy addition to the Grindhouse Canon. That doesn't mean it's a great movie ... not even close. But it's better than the usual, and the ways in which exploitation movies can go wrong are mostly avoided. Director Lewis Teague keeps things moving, writer John Sayles doesn't trip over his own feet, Pamela Sue Martin is a reasonably appealing lead. It's based on fact without rubbing that in our faces (the "facts" being the relationship between the Lady in Red and criminal John Dillinger). You need a tolerance for staples of grindhouse like violence (lots of shootouts) and nudity (Martin's character spends time in a women's prison, and later works in a brothel). Everyone knew what they were doing, which is why Roger Corman hired them in the first place.

We've already hinted at some of the interesting trivia. Pamela Sue Martin had played Nancy Drew on television for two seasons, and wanted to change her image. So she did a Playboy pictorial, and then this movie. Later, she featured in Dynasty for several years, and even once hosted Saturday Night Live.

John Sayles began his movie career with Roger Corman. He went on to become a respected writer/director of art films, as well as a novelist. John Dillinger was played by the popular TV actor Robert Conrad. Perhaps one reason the film isn't called "Dillinger" is that the character doesn't turn up until the movie is more than halfway done. The supporting cast is filled with great actors, cult stars, and "that guys" ... Louise Fletcher had won a Best Actress Oscar only a few years earlier ... Mary Woronov (who has one scene) was a member of Warhol's Factory ... Christopher Lloyd was a bad guy named "Frognose" ... and it wouldn't be a Corman movie without the immortal Dick Miller, who this time manages a sweatshop. Finally, there's Robert Forster as a very cool hitman ... apparently the role was too small to suit Forster's agent, which for some reason is why Forster's name is not in the credits. Behind the scenes, The Lady in Red was one of the earliest films with James Horner doing the music. Horner went on to win two Oscars for Titanic. On a consumer guide level, if you want to watch a violent action movie with lots of nudity, you'll like The Lady in Red. But it's not a classic.

creature features: dracula (tod browning, 1931)

Universal Pictures had made horror films before Dracula, such as the Lon Chaney versions of The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Phantom of the Opera. But various home-video repackagings of old Universal horror starting in 1991 have eventually resulted in what is called the "Universal Classic Monsters" series. This "universe" is similar to what companies like Marvel and DC Comics have done with their characters. According to the Universal "canon", Dracula is the first film in the series.

It remains the most iconic of all Dracula films, thanks to the performance of Bela Lugosi. And rightly so ... even in 2024, someone doing an impression of Dracula is likely to use a Lugosi accent. The problem is that Lugosi's performance is iconic, but poor, much like the movie itself. It's not just Lugosi's fault ... all of the characters seem to have instructed to read their lines with slow, pause-filled excess. Combined with the stagey production (the film is based more on a play based on the novel than on the novel itself), this 1931 Dracula is a disappointment, important historically but not particularly good in the end. Karl Freund's cinematography is impressive (and Freund's work overall was important enough that he was essentially an uncredited co-director), and some of the sets are properly atmospheric. But again the stage roots show through ... too much of the film takes place in small rooms, filled with awkwardly-delivered dialogue. It wasn't until Frankenstein, released later the same year, that Universal got it right.

geezer cinema: poor things (yorgos lanthimos, 2023)

Emma Stone is a much bigger star than I realized. I'd seen six of her movies before Poor Things, and if none of them knocked me over, a few were OK. She has a Best Actress Oscar, she was the highest-paid actress in the world in 2017, and in perhaps the most indicative fact about her popularity, she recently hosted Saturday Night Live for the fifth time:

Poor Things is my third Yorgos Lanthimos film. I liked The Lobster OK, didn't much care for The Favourite. I looked forward to this movie thanks to its mostly positive reviews, and I was rewarded ... the is easily my favorite Lanthimos movie as well as my favorite Emma Stone movie.

Stone is the biggest reason for this. She takes a role that could simply be Oscar bait and makes something wonderful out of it. She plays Bella, the creation of a Frankenstein-like doctor, with a baby's brain inside an adult body. Over the course of the film, Bella's mind grows as her experiences grow, and Stone is spotless throughout, believable as a baby, believable as an adult, with the transition being properly gradual. (Being able to represent the various stages of Bella is the Oscar bait ... making them seem real is the true acting triumph.) Here, she discovers dancing, and her joy is felt by us in the audience, although, in a recurring trope of the film, the man she's with (Mark Ruffalo) tries to control her actions:

The connection to the original Frankenstein tale is clear, and in many ways, Poor Things plays like a feature-length extension of the scene in Bride of Frankenstein where the monster meets the friendly blind man. But Lanthimos (and writer Tony McNamara, and Alasdair Gray, who wrote the novel on which the film is based) is up to more than just paying homage. Bella blossoms, she confronts society and insists on being in command of her life and actions. She does many things we might find abusive (at one point, she becomes a prostitute to earn money), but always she makes her own choices about what she will do. This frustrates the men in her life, who all want to put her in a cage that they can control.

But the film pulls back a bit from making too large a statement. The men tell her that society won't accept her, but most of that society is actually charmed by her. Her behavior, shocking as it often is, is rarely chastised by the elite people she comes across. Thus, Poor Things is a crowd-pleaser, because we see our own pleasure mirrored in some of the characters in the film. Poor Things works as a critique of the patriarchy, but it falls short as a critique of society as a whole (even though Bella eventually adopts socialism).

There will be stiff competition for the Best Actress Oscar ... not only do we have excellent performances from the likes of Margot Robbie, Greta Lee, and Natalie Portman, but Lily Gladstone looks to be entering the Best Actress race despite having more of a supporting role (and Gladstone's may be the best performance by any actor this year). But Emma Stone deserves to be talked about in their company. Of what I have seen, Poor Things is one of the 10 best films of the years.

[Letterboxd list of my top 10 films of 2023]

film fatales # 191: outside in (lynn shelton, 2017)

This is the sixteenth film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2023-24", "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 9th annual challenge, and my fifth time participating (previous years can be found at "2019-20", "2020-21", "2021-22", and "2022-23"). Week 16 is called "Lin, Lyne, Lynn, Lynn, or Lynne Week":

This week, we pay homage to Benjamin Milot, LSC's previous host. Back in 2018, he came up with the idea of loosely grouping four or five prominent actors or directors based only on the similarity of their names. Not only did this create a clever title for a theme week, but it also tended to provide a wide range of films from which to choose, producing a creative cornucopia of cinema to sate any palate.

In that spirit, we continue his vital work. This week, you'll pick a movie directed by one of the following: Justin LinAdrian LyneDarren Lynn BousmanLynn Shelton, or Lynne Ramsay. Or, if you're up for a real challenge, choose one from each!

P.S. We know Adrian's last name is pronounced "line," but it looks the same, so don't fight it.

I had seen one other movie directed by Lynn Shelton, Sword of Trust, and much of what I said about that film applies to Outside In:

I wanted to like Sword of Trust ... But the best I can say is that I didn't dislike it. ... I never quit rooting for the movie ... Everyone does good work, but overall, I wanted a little more.

Once again, Shelton shows herself to be a good director of actors. But the basic plot (ex-con returns, faces problems) reminded me too much of the great, forgotten TV series Rectify, and it doesn't come close. Edie Falco does excellent work as a woman who wears her emotions on her face, and as always, I liked Kaitlin Dever. But Jay Duplass was a real problem for me. I've never been a big fan of his screen presence (this was the first movie with him that I had seen, but he turns up on my TV a lot), and his role as the ex-con seems ill-fitted to what Duplass gives us. I expected someone more hardened, and that could be on me, since he's not a typical ex-con. And I may have suffered from submerged macho syndrome, because while Falco's emotional turmoil moved me, I quickly tired of seeing Duplass performing a similar role. (Duplass also co-wrote the script with Shelton.) So now I've seen two of Lynn Shelton's features, I'd like to see more, but I haven't gone overboard on what I've seen so far.

a few last movie lists for 2023

I'll probably watch a few more movies this year, but unless one is an all-time classic, these will likely remain the best movies I watched in 2023 for the first time. I gave all of them a rating of 9 on a scale of 10. Sorted by release year:

[Letterboxd list of movies I watched in 2023]

I have watched 60 movies from 2022. I watched 23 of them in 2023, which is why I make lists like this a year late ... after an extra year, I will have seen a lot more movies from that year:

[Letterboxd list of my favorite 2022 movies]

As of this writing, my favorite 2022 movies are:

  1. Women Talking
  2. RRR
  3. Everything Everywhere All at Once

As I said in a different context, I was a bit behind the times, but 2023 was when I gave myself over completely to my Jessie Buckley crush. So, always looking for an excuse to include a video of Jessie Buckley and the delightful way her mouth turns up on one side like she's an Irish female Elvis, I'll add this brief clip from a Women Talking red carpet moment:

geezer cinema: may december (todd haynes, 2023)

The last Geezer Cinema movie of 2023, 51 films, from Bessie to May December. It was a good one to go out on, with some fine acting and an intriguing, almost horror-film approach. Not that it follows standard horror tropes. But Natalie Portman pulls off a fascinating transformation with her character, Elizabeth, an actress doing background research for her latest project, where she plays a Mary Kay Letourneau-like woman (herself played in this movie by Julianne Moore).

Todd Haynes doesn't go overboard on the sensational aspects of the story (Letourneau, and Moore's character here, "Gracie", has an affair with a young student that results in her going to jail for rape, after which she married the kid and had a family with him). At least as I saw it, the most interesting thing in the movie was watching Portman/Elizabeth gradually taking on the mannerisms of Gracie/Moore. It sneaks up on you, but it would make a fine double-bill with Bergman's Persona or my beloved Performance. Portman's performance is quite sly ... apparently Julianne Moore did not notice Natalie Portman was improvising by mimicking her mannerisms in some scenes until later into filming. Near the end, Portman reads an old letter that had been written by Gracie, and at that point, she is completely channeling Moore. It's quite a depiction of the process of acting, at least one kind of acting.

Here's a summary of Geezer 2023:

Longest: Killers of the Flower Moon.

Shortest: Bottoms and The Royal Hotel.

Favorites: The Shape of Water, E.T., Walkabout.

Least Favorite: Black Adam

Favorites from 2023: Past Lives, Barbie, Oppenheimer, Killers of the Flower Moon, Anatomy of a Fall, Godzilla Minus One, The Boy and the Heron

And here is the complete list of all 221 Geezer movies (and counting) since the first one on July 9, 2019:

[Letterboxd list of Geezer Cinema movies]

scrooged (richard donner, 1988)

The grandson and his family were over on xmas day, so we had to watch a movie. Some version of A Christmas Carol seemed to be in order, and when asked for my opinion, I volunteered Scrooged, so that's what we watched. My memory is that it was a fun movie, and I was right ... the whole family seemed to enjoy it. I was surprised to find it "boasts" a Metascore of only 38/100. Among the critics' comments: "appallingly unfunny", "as funny as a mugging", and "an exercise in hypocrisy". At least Pauline Kael liked it: "The heartlessness of the film's beauty is exciting."

Sure, the sentimental ending feels bogus, but I've always thought that about the story of Scrooge ... I don't think it's worse here. Bill Murray is great, and the supporting cast is filled with people that I, at least, thought were mostly wonderful: David Johansen, Carol Kane, Bobcat Goldthwait, Michael J. Pollard, Alfre Woodard, Robert Goulet, Buddy Hackett, even Mary Lou Retton. It's loony, of course, but until the "happy" ending, we're allowed to see Scrooge's attitudes from a comic perspective, and it's a smart touch to have Scrooge be a ratings-obsessed television executive. You could double that 38/100 Metascore and come closer to the actual enjoyment Scrooged offers.

red beard (akira kurosawa, 1965)

Highly acclaimed film from a highly acclaimed director, #784 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time. I think Kurosawa is one of our greatest directors, but Red Beard was not one of my favorites.

While it is a period piece starring Toshiro Mifune, it's not what you expect. The period is Japan in the 1800s, and Mifune plays a doctor at a rural hospital clinic for the poor. This is an intriguing concept for a Kurosawa movie, but it's more than three hours, and it feels endless. It's episodic, and the most interesting material comes in the last hour, after an intermission. Which if you do the math means there are two hours of setup to get to the good stuff. Obviously, its elevated reputation tells you that many people disagree with me. I wish the first two hours had been cut in half (at least), and I found the film hard to get through.

Kurosawa and cinematographers Asakazu Nakai and Takao Saito make effective use of light and shadow ... the film looks powerful. But it's no classic.

geezer cinema: the boy and the heron (hayao miyazaki, 2023)

My 11th Miyazaki movie, and I still haven't seen one that was bad ... well, I wasn't a big fan of his first (The Castle of Cagliostro), but it's all been smooth sailing since. While each of his movies are distinctive, I repeat myself when I write about them, because his movies are recognizably his ... they are different from each other, yet unmistakably Miyazaki. It's not that he's an example of the old auteur theory; he doesn't repeat little bits of work that call back to earlier movies. To give an example of what I mean, many (most? all?) of his films include little creatures which tend to be adorable, tend to get in the way, tend to charm the audience ... but they are different each time. There's the black blobs in Howl's Moving Castle (which, now that I think of it, aren't particularly small or adorable), the white thingies with heads that crack sideways in Princess Mononoke, and my favorites, the soot thingies from Spirited Away. Totoro is enormous, of course, but he's a lot like those little creatures. And, to quote myself, Hollywood is capable of creating special effects that cause your jaw to drop, but Miyazaki creates special effects out of his brain. I spent a lot of The Boy and the Heron imagining the kind of person who could create such a movie.

Watching The Boy and the Heron, I found myself regularly in awe. I kept moving my head to see everything (and we weren't even watching the IMAX version).

And perhaps the most telling aspect of the movie, at least in terms of my appreciation for Miyazaki's work, is that while I loved it just as much as the above indicates, I think if I made a ranked list of his movies, The Boy and the Heron would be, oh, fifth-highest at best. I think any of his movies would be good as a starting point for new viewers (maybe not The Castle of Cagliostro), but I suppose Totoro is the most iconic way into Miyazaki's world. I still think Mononoke and Spirited Away are his best, but I'm just splitting hairs. Hayao Miyazaki is one of the greatest film makers of all time.