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.