borg vs. mcenroe (janus metz, 2017)

The IMDB tells us, "In Nordic countries, film was titled 'Borg'." This is apparently because the director is Danish and the star is Swedish. But it's an appropriate title, no matter the country, because while the actual title suggests an even matchup between two tennis greats, in fact, Borg vs. McEnroe is much more about Borg than about his American counterpart, enough so that if this movie was Oscar-worthy, Shia LaBeouf as John McEnroe would properly fall into the Supporting Actor category.

There is nothing inherently wrong with this, but at the time these two titans played, Björn Borg was known at times as a "machine", while McEnroe's emotions were famously explosive on the court. The film spends more time with the man who internalized than with the one who wore his heart on his proverbial sleeve, which means the feel of the movie is also quieter on the surface. To balance this a bit, there are segments of the two players when they were younger, and from this, we learn that Borg too was known as temperamental growing up. This allows us to better see the effort Borg endured to maintain his famous composure as an adult. Ultimately, though, the movie might be more entertaining if McEnroe was the primary focus.

To an extent, this mirrors the times ... tennis fans often favored Borg or McEnroe, and a case can be made for both ... these are two of the greatest tennis players of all time. The film is pretty accurate about all of this, I just feel it needed a bit more of McEnroe's fire.

One uncanny note: Sverrir Gudnason and LaBeouf look enough like their real-life characters, thanks partly to the wigs they wear. But Gusnason looks so much like Viggo Mortensen, it drove me crazy until I figured out the resemblance.

film fatales #200: bergman island (marie nyreröd, 2006)

A bit of an oddity, and a real pleasure for Bergman fans, Bergman Island is an edit of three television interviews Marie Nyreröd conducted with Ingmar Bergman at his home on the isolated island of Fårö. Bergman was in his 80s, and Nyreröd is a congenial and astute interviewers. The film is good for what it is, as we watch and listen to one of cinema's greats. Nonetheless, it's not overwhelming as a film ... Nyreröd has cut the original three interviews down by approximately half, and while the two walk around the island and inside Bergman's house, essentially this is two talking heads. Interesting because of the subject matter, worth a look, but otherwise nothing special.

blackberry (matt johnson, 2023)

A couple of months ago, Amazon Studios released Air, which told the story of how Nike convinced Michael Jordan to sign a shoe contract with them. The film was directed by Oscar-winner Ben Affleck, who also played Phil Knight, the head of Nike. The budget was reported at around $90 million dollars, with Oscar-winner Matt Damon in the leading role, and Oscar-winner Viola Davis as Jordan's mother.

At about the same time, a Canadian based-on-true-life film, BlackBerry, was released. It told of the rise and fall of the company that created the BlackBerry. The film was directed by Matt Johnson (The Dirties), who also played the co-founder of the company that gave us the BlackBerry. The budget was reported at around $5 million dollars, and besides Johnson, starred Jay Baruchel and Glenn Howerton.

There's probably no point to this, but it strikes me as significant that an American based-on-fact film got a decent-sized budget and some Oscar-winning stars, while a Canadian based-on-fact film got a tiny budget and some strong but lesser-known actors. Granted, Michael Jordan has a huge presence in popular culture to this day, while no one remembers the BlackBerry. But there are ways in which Matt Johnson has some freedom that perhaps Ben Affleck did not, precisely because he wasn't working with $90 million of Amazon's money.

One thing I noted at the time about Air is that while Jordan gets our attention, he's largely absent from the film, which is about a company that makes shoes. Meanwhile, most of us likely couldn't tell you the names of the key players in the story of BlackBerry, but neither is there a hole in the film because Michael Jordan was unavailable.

Baruchel and Howerton are excellent, although Baruchel's hair is odd in ways I'm not sure exactly matches the hair of the person he is playing. After seeing this and The Dirties, I can say that for me a little of Matt Johnson's acting goes a long way, and he's pretty irritating here. But that irritation is appropriate ... while Baruchel plays Mike Lazaridis, who came up with the BlackBerry, and Howerton plays Jim Balsillie, the high-powered executive who makes the company thrive, Johnson plays the guy who was with his friend Mike from the beginning, and sees that Balsillie is taking his friend in an unforeseen direction.

BlackBerry moves right along ... it's an engrossing tale, and probably close enough to the truth to pass. In its own way, it's as good a film as Air, despite (or because of) the resources available to the film makers.

a few 2022 movie lists

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 2022 for the first time. I gave all of them a rating of 9 on a scale of 10. Sorted by release year:

Best movies I re-watched this year (all 10/10):

  • The Wizard of Oz (1939)
  • Citizen Kane (1941)
  • A Hard Day's Night (1964)
  • Jaws (1975)
  • The Last Waltz (1978)
  • Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

The ongoing Geezer Cinema list. We watched 48 Geezer movies this year, beginning with Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse back on January 4:

[Letterboxd list of Geezer Cinema movies]

And this list of everything I watched this year:

[Letterboxd list of movies I watched in 2022]

what i watched

Been watching a lot of movies, but various things have kept me away from the keyboard, so here is a catching-up post, with a few movies getting less attention than they deserve.

African-American Directors Series: Soul Food (George Tillman, Jr., 1997). I watched the first season of the television series based on this film, and then lost track of it, as often happens. So perhaps I was affected a bit by this, since for me, the movie Soul Food plays like a TV series. The film features a fine cast (Vanessa Williams, Vivica A. Fox, Nia Long, Michael Beach, Mekhi Phifer, Irma P. Hall), anchored by young Brandon Hammond, playing Ahmad, the kid through whose eyes we see the story of a family unfolding. It's only the second movie from writer/director George Tillman, Jr., and it has a winning honesty, but there are few surprises.

Film Fatales #154: "The Murmuring" (Jennifer Kent, 2022). Not exactly a movie, this is an episode of the television series Guillermo del Toro's Cabinet of Curiosities. But hey, it's a bit longer than an hour, and it's directed by the great Jennifer Kent (The Babadook, The Nightingale). This one is closer to The Babadook ... it deals with grief, it has horror elements, it even stars Essie Davis. Andrew Lincoln of The Walking Dead co-stars, and Kent and her stars make no missteps. It's a welcome addition to Kent's resume.

Geezer Cinema/Film Fatales #155: Causeway (Lila Neugebauer, 2022.). All of these movies are carried by their actors. Causeway is a well-told tale about a soldier with PTSD who connects with another person with a backstory. But there isn't much new in the story or the telling. What raises Causeway above the norm is the acting by Jennifer Lawrence and Brian Tyree Henry (who is apparently incapable of anything but great performances). The odd-couple pairing of the two is both obvious and terrific. Lawrence and Henry make us believe in their characters, who don't know that we've seen similar stories before. Their stories are personal and fresh to them, and the stars convey this in many touching ways.

Dr. No (Teremce Young, 1962). I was feeling a bit under the weather, so I fell back on comfort food, watching this and From Russia with Love on successive nights. My memory often fails me, but I think this was the last movie I saw in a theater with my mother (I also remember it being a drive-in). I read all of the novels, and had quite the 007 obsession in my youth. At this point, Dr. No works mainly as an historical artifact. The movie is OK, we get to meet Sean Connery's Bond, Ursula Andress sets the standard for Bond Girls, but it needs hindsight to imagine that the Bond movies would still be going strong 60 years later. Things definitely took a step up with the next one, From Russia with Love.

flee (jonas poher rasmussen, 2021)

You can learn a lot about Flee by looking at the three categories for which it has received an Oscar nomination: Best Documentary Feature, Best Animated Feature, and Best International Feature. It is the first movie in Oscar history to get nominated in all three of those categories, and it is clear from those nominations that this is not a straightforward presentation. Animation draws attention to its unreal nature, while documentaries at least pretend to show "real" life. By choosing to animate his film, Jonas Poher Rasmussen is making a statement about the veracity of documentaries.

The film is also complicated by the possible untrustworthy source of its narrative. Flee tells the story of the pseudonymous "Amin", who is a long-time friend of the director, and who is a refugee from Afghanistan. Rasmussen wants to tell Amin's story, wants to give Amin a chance to tell his story, but Amin has good reasons to hide behind anonymity. We don't know exactly what he looks like, since he is animated in a style so close to rotoscoping that we might forget the face is probably not a match for the real person. We learn of his escape from Afghanistan as a child, and to some extent, that explains all of the ways Amin hides the truth. Rasmussen assumes he knows much of the story, but over the course of the film, he learns that Amin has never told people his entire true story. The revelations are new not just to the audience, but also to the director.

Once you realize that Amin will adjust his story to protect himself, you question the validity of what he tells us about his life. The emotional makeup of the character feels very real, and his reasons for protecting himself are obvious. We sympathize with him ... we don't turn against him when we see how his story is sometimes a bit sideways to the facts, just as Rasmussen remains Amin's friend even as he learns that some of what he has known isn't literally true.

It strikes me that my two favorite movies so far from 2021 are documentaries. Summer of Soul remains my top choice, but Flee is in the same league.

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.