geezer cinema: the animal kingdom (edward h. griffith and george cukor, 1932)

Pre-code comedy-drama that makes for good post-viewing conversation, but is a stage-bound bore for the most part as you watch it.

Edward H. Griffith gets sole credit for directing, although George Cukor's involvement is known. The film stars Ann Harding, an interesting actress who had gotten an Oscar nomination two years earlier for the 1930 version of Holiday. Myrna Loy does Myrna Loy stuff ... her part is about the same size as Harding's, but Harding gets top billing. Leslie Howard is the male lead, and he's one of the reasons the film is rather boring. His character supposedly feels passionately about the two women in his life, but it doesn't come across. The film is based on a play, and it shows, which isn't a dealbreaker (A Streetcar Named Desire, to name one example, is one of our finest films), but it feels painfully obvious in this case.

The plot is what offers the post-mortem conversation. At the beginning, Tom (Howard) has had a long-time relationship (best friends, probably more) with Daisy (Harding), but he falls in love with Cecelia (Loy), who he marries. Various plot shenanigans occur, eventually leading to Tom having to choose between wife Cecelia and true love Daisy. Tom decides to go back to his wife, by which he means Daisy, creating a question about the true meaning and necessity of the social contract of marriage. Which, among other things, is why an attempt to re-release the film once the Code was in place was a failure ... it didn't get clearance. As I say, quite interesting, but it doesn't really make the movie any livelier.

geezer cinema: the greeks had a word for them (lowell sherman, 1932)

I'm not the first person to point out that any movie is made better by the presence of Joan Blondell. Here, she is joined by Madge Evans and Ina Claire, and they make a fun threesome, making their way through "drinkies" as they work as "showgirls-turned-courtesans" in this pre-Code picture. There's not much to it ... as is often the case with a lesser film like this, the trivia is as interesting as anything else. Blondell married the cameraman (it didn't last), and the title was variable ... based on a play, The Greeks Had a Word for It, and for some reason that title was deemed offensive, so they changed "It" until "Them". It was re-released as Three Broadway Girls, which was the title of the print I saw. That print was crappy. This is one of the films that fell into the public domain. There were a few recognizable people who went uncredited: Louise Beavers had a scene or two, can't remember, and Ward Bond had a scene as a cabbie. It's said that Betty Grable's in there, too. Best part: it's over in 79 minutes.

Here's one of the great movie moments featuring Joan Blondell, presented in two parts because the YouTube clips in general are a bit of a mess (the movie is Gold Diggers of 1933):

geezer cinema: the file on thelma jordon (robert siodmak, 1949)

Run-of-the-mill noir that has many of the trappings of the genre, but seems to want to pass as a whodunit. By 1949, studios could put Barbara Stanwyck into a movie like this and coast on her presence to give a noir feel. But as written, Thelma Jordon isn't much of a femme fatale until the end of the movie, which means the film drags. Something like Double Indemnity shows us from the start that Stanwyck's character is no good, but here, Thelma comes across as a wronged woman, unjustly accused of murder, which gives the courtroom scenes at the end some interest, but it's more entertaining to watch a femme fatale at work, and so since Stanwyck isn't revealed until the end, the entertainment value is lessened.

It doesn't help that Wendell Corey is a drab male lead. I kept waiting for something to spark, but it never happened. There's nothing awful about The File on Thelma Jordon ... it's a passable time-waster. But I wouldn't go any higher than that.

geezer cinema/film fatales #205: the hitch-hiker (ida lupino, 1953)

Ida Lupino gets credit for being a woman director in Hollywood when there were no such things. I'm behind the times with Lupino ... this is the first of her directed movies I've seen, and I only saw one movie that she acted in (High Sierra, which I watched recently).

The Hitch-Hiker is compact (71 minutes). Lupino wastes no time, there is no flab, nor is there time to think too hard about what you are seeing. In short, it's effective for what it is attempting. It's a noir without a femme fatale, and ironically the only noir directed by a woman. The best noirs (Double Indemnity and The Night of the Hunter, to name two) are as good as the best films of any genre. It does seem to me that the genre has a reputation that is a bit elevated, though. If you make a spare, inexpensive film with a touch of style, your movie will be highly regarded. A movie like, say, Kansas City Confidential is fine, but that's all it is (and it should go without saying that "fine" is not a pejorative).

So The Hitch-Hiker is a good movie, but its status may be high in part because Lupino directed it, and it's an underexposed noir.

For boomers, the highlight of The Hitch-Hiker is probably William Talman as the title character. This hitch-hiker is a vicious killer, while Talman became best known for his years playing district attorney Hamilton Burger on the old Perry Mason television series. Talman is indeed ferocious here, with a droopy eye that adds menace. Edmond O'Brien and Frank Lovejoy are two friends who pick up Talman, to their regret. The movie I was most reminded of was Detour, which is the best of all the cheapie Grade-Z noirs. The Hitch-Hiker is nowhere near as good as Detour, but it's a worthy addition to your noir viewing.

geezer cinema: godzilla x kong: the new empire (adam wingard, 2024)

The first movie in the Monsterverse, Gareth Edwards' 2014 Godzilla, makes a case for being the best Godzilla movie of all time. At the least, it's the best one made in America. Next was Kong: Skull Island, an entertaining film. Godzilla: King of the Monsters, was a further step downwards, while I liked Godzilla vs. Kong.

Then the Japanese upped the ante with Godzilla Minus One, which is the best Japanese Godzilla movie ever, in part because you actually cared about the human characters. I thought it was one of the ten best movies of the year, and it even won an Oscar.

This is the context within which Godzilla x Kong was released, and the comparison isn't kind. It's nowhere near as good as Minus One or the 2014 version. It's nowhere near as good as Skull Island or Godzilla vs. Kong. I'm not even sure it's as good as King of the Monsters. The human actors do what they can (Brian Tyree Henry can do no wrong, but once again, he's used as comic relief), but the monster fights, as impressive as they are, are ultimately boring. Impressive doesn't mean good. When monsters fight in Godzilla x Kong, you marvel at what can be done with movies today, but you don't give a shit about the monsters doing the fighting. The worst is a little junior Kong, who is predictably annoying ... never trust a monster movie with a precocious kid monster.

Meanwhile, the dialogue is endless and uninteresting, stopping in a couple of spots for egregious exposition overload that stops everything in its tracks. I'd say Godzilla x Kong is disappointing, and if your hopes were raised by the likes of Minus One, you will feel bad. But what Godzilla x Kong (the x is silent) really does is fulfill any expectations you might have for a movie with such a dull title.

geezer cinema: the train (john frankenheimer, 1964)

John Frankenheimer (The Manchurian Candidate, but also The Island of Dr. Moreau) had a long and varied career, with a few real highlights. The Train, like Seven Days in May, is very entertaining, with enough subtext to add depth without distracting too much from the basic intention to offer an intelligent action picture. I looked forward to seeing this movie, which seemed to have a decent reputation but which isn't talked about as much as Seven Days in May (much less Manchurian Candidate). And that reputation is deserved .... The Train isn't special, yet that gives it a retrograde enjoyment, as in the cliche of "they don't make them like that any more". Of course, they do still make big action movies, but in line with the retrograde feel, The Train is in black-and-white (reputedly the last big B&W movie), and Burt Lancaster is always good for the nostalgic angle.

Frankenheimer makes excellent use of Lancaster, who does all of his own stunts (on an off-day, Lancaster injured a leg playing golf, so Frankenheimer wrote a scene where Burt's character gets shot in the leg to explain his limp). They also used real trains throughout, no models ... when you see big trains crashing, often into each other, it's the real thing. It's perhaps especially impressive in the CGI era, when such extravagances are unnecessary.

The plot, based on a true story, is about French art treasures the Nazis have stolen. They are trying to get the masterpieces to Germany. Lancaster is a French railway inspector and Resistance fighter (as evidence of his star status, Lancaster does not use a French accent ... he's pretty much the only person in the movie who sounds like an American). The film is a combination of clever manipulations by the French to forestall the transfer of the art works and occasional action set pieces that usually involve one or more trains blowing up. The entire film is a bit long, but it holds its entertainment value throughout. The brutality of the Nazis is there but as a supplement, not the core of the film, and the general question of whether art matters more than the lives of humans is at least deep enough to make The Train a bit better than the standard war picture. Lancaster is at his action best, Paul Scofield as the main Nazi antagonist has a German accent, and Jeanne Moreau is wasted (her part is apparently Woman with a Few Scenes So We Can Say There's a Woman in the Film). #9 on my Letterboxd list of the best movies of 1964.

geezer cinema/film fatales #201: love lies bleeding (rose glass, 2024)

Love Lies Bleeding isn't exactly different ... it happily borrows from several genres. But things get a bit loony ... the genres aren't ones you think will match. The hype promises sex, violence, action, and lesbians, and the movie delivers. Writer/director Rose Glass (Saint Maud, which was the 100th Geezer Movie) and co-writer Weronika Tofilska don't play it safe, and the movie is the better for it.

The movie is a mess ... a likable mess, but a mess. I expected wall-to-wall action, which isn't Glass's fault ... my expectations were based on the trailer and word of mouth. I thought it took its time getting to cranked-up speed, and there's nothing wrong with that, once I adjusted to it. It delivered on the hype from the start, it's just that the lesbians and sex came first. Once the action begins, though ... whoa! The IMDB Parent's Guide puts it all on the table, with notes like "People are shot with bloody detail, grotesque wounds and disturbing sound effects" and "A woman beats a man and slams his head repeatedly against a tabletop". That latter doesn't even get it, but I'm avoiding spoilers. I'll just say that the make-up people and/or the CGI folks did some impressive work.

The relationship between Lou (Kristen Stewart), who works in a gym, and Jackie (Katy O'Brian), a bodybuilder, is intense and honest. Glass and the actors take that relationship in complex directions ... Lou's past stifles her, and Jackie turns into something scary when she begins shooting up steroids. The entire movie plays like a twisted blend of Thelma and Louise and the Wachowskis' Bound . Even when Lou and Jackie hit a rough spot, we root for them. It helps that Stewart and O'Brian have great chemistry. The supporting cast is also eclectic ... Ed Harris is the bad guy with a ridiculous long-hair wig, and there's Jena Malone (who is in everything, it seems) and Baryshnikov's daughter Anna (shoutout again to the make-up crew ... Anna's teeth must be seen to be believed, even though once you see them, you never want to see them again).

I never got the feeling Glass was out of control ... what makes Love Lies Bleeding a mess is partly the ambition Glass shows. She takes us to surprising places, and what happens to Jackie at the end is a perfect visual representation of female empowerment. (And Glass prepares us for that final scenario, even though we aren't aware of it at the time.)

Reading the above, I feel like the person who wrote it loved the movie, while I actually liked-not-loved it. I prefer Saint Maud for people wanting to check out Rose Glass. At the least, my words here tell me I liked it a lot.

geezer cinema: lone star (john sayles, 1996)

It had been a long time since I'd seen Lone Star, and while I've seen half a dozen that John Sayles directed, I only wrote about one, City of Hope. (Sayles worked with Roger Corman early in his career, writing classics like Alligator ... he also wrote a movie from this year's Challenge, The Lady in Red.) My memory was that Lone Star is the best movie Sayles ever made, and having watched it again at last, I'm willing to agree with that memory.

Sayles is an icon of American independent film, but he never stopped there. He has written half-a-dozen novels. He directed three Bruce Springsteen videos in the Born in the USA days. He won a MacArthur Fellowship. None of this guarantees his movies will be great, but the breadth of his achievements hint at possibilities. Sayles makes small movies ... Lone Star had a budget of around $5 million ... but they are large in their ambitions. Sayles often works with big casts, and actors like to work with him, even in small parts. Frances McDormand has only one scene in Lone Star. Kris Kristofferson plays an evil sheriff, Elizabeth Peña has the female lead opposite Chris Cooper ... even a young Matthew McConaughey turns up, after Dazed and Confused and before he exploded into mass popularity with A Time to Kill.

Sayles is mixing past and present, as a theme but also literally, as he segues between present day scenes and past memories. Sayles seems to have a reputation as a fine writer with only basic skills as a film maker (David Thomson said of Sayles, "I can't help feeling that the novel is Sayles's true calling"). But his seques in Lone Star are masterful:

The screenplay is expansive, but the narrative is airtight, even as we move back and forth from past to present. And there are plenty of secrets, and when you look back on Lone Star, you'll realize that Sayles sets everything up perfectly ... it all makes sense.

Tomás Sandoval makes a crucial point about the seques: "Just as the flashbacks in the film occur without a fade away or a break in the action, so too the past is tied to the present in the most intimate of ways." Everything ties together. Each character has their own view of what has happened in their lives, of what is happening in their lives right now. Some want to forget the past, but it's not possible. And Sayles connects this to a larger world. It's not just about these people, it's about borders, it's about personal and cultural identity, all tied into the history that attempts to make sense of the past. You can't move on until you confront the past, but you can't just stay stuck in that past. As one character says at the end, thinking about forging ahead in spite of history, "Forget the Alamo."

geezer cinema/film fatales #196: nyad (elizabeth chai vasarhelyi and jimmy chin, 2023)

Nyad is the first fiction film from noted documentary film makers Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin. The transition is made smooth by the fact that Nyad is based on a true story ... the core of the script has written itself. I'm not sure I could actually explain the difference between a biopic and a film "based on a true story". The biopic suggests a focus on one person rather than a situation or event, and Diana Nyad is certainly an interesting subject for a biopic. But the "true" story is actually the best part of the film, especially the relationship between Nyad (Annette Bening) and her coach, Bonnie Stoll (Jodie Foster). If Nyad were simply a biopic, it would be like so many others, simultaneously slavish to biography and drawn to making reality into more interesting fiction. But whenever the film bogs down, Bening and Foster (and the rest of the cast, notably Rhys Ifans) raise it up again. (Bening and Foster both received Oscar nominations for the film.)

Diana Nyad is similar in some ways to Alex Honnold, the rock climber at the center of Free Solo, which was co-directed by Vasarhelyi, Chin, and others. Honnold has an obsession, and the willpower to do what it takes to accomplish something no one else has ever done. Nyad adds another dimension: she is in her sixties when she decides to swim from Cuba to Key West. Bening's performance is brave ... she's unafraid to show Nyad's harsher side ... and Foster hits the right notes as the friend who can keep Diana on track without taking too much shit.

The technical aspects of Nyad's swim are mindboggling, and the filming techniques are fascinating, as well:

But, as is often the case with this genre, what is left out can be too important to ignore.  I think Nyad's accomplishment is amazing, but it matters than her record has never been ratified "due to the lack of independent observers and incomplete records." It matters equally that nothing about this is shown in the film, as if we would be less amazed by Nyad's remarkable marathon swim if we knew there was some controversy involved.

Still, the story works well, as in most sports stories (a powerful ending is the usual for such movies), and the acting makes up for a lot. I've seen all five nominees for the Best Actress Oscar, and Bening certainly belongs in the same company as the others, although I imagine Lily Gladstone will win, Emma Stone was more outrageous, and Carey Mulligan is as good as always. I've seen all of the Supporting Actress nominees except for Danielle Brooks in The Color Purple, and again, Foster is a viable candidate, but I'm guessing Da'Vine Joy Randolph will win that one.

geezer cinema/african-american directors series: bob marley: one love (reinaldo marcus green, 2024)

Biopics. I don't hate 'em, I see a lot of them, but I rarely look forward to them. My expectations are always low. I have never thought too hard about why that is. Biopics about musicians are especially problematic, because if they don't include the artist's music, there's a big hole in the center of the film, but if they do include the music, it's often in an attempt to tie events in the artist's life to specific songs, and I've always found that to be nonsense. Rocketman was an exceptionally awful example of this, since the lyrics which supposedly reflected things in Elton John's life were written by Bernie Taupin.

Another problem with biopics comes with the participation of people close to the figure in question. The Marley family was involved with the making of One Love, and the film has access to elements of Marley's life and music that might be missing from an "unauthorized" film. But as in most such cases, the result borders on hagiography: Marley is presented in a positive light, which might seem appropriate given his status as an almost godlike figure to his many fans, but it prevents the film from giving a more all-encompassing picture of Marley.

Also, while it's understandable to limit the film to a specific period in Marley's life (1976-1978), this means the musical focus is entirely on Bob Marley and the Wailers, with only rare considerations of the years when The Wailers included Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer. OK, it's not a movie about those two, and however good their music was (as Wailers and as solo artists), their cultural impact is nothing like Marley's. But I missed Tosh and Bunny.

Biopics rise or fall in large part on the performances, and here, One Love succeeds. Kingsley Ben-Adir is excellent as Marley ... he makes the movie worth seeing. (He was also great as Malcolm X in One Night in Miami, a film that works in part because it's not a biopic but a fictionalized representation of a moment when four icons were together for a night.) Lashana Lynch, still only in her mid-30s, has offered a wide variety of roles as disparate as a 00-agent in a Bond movie, a warrior in The Woman King, and Maria Rambeau from the Marvel world. Now we can add her portrayal of Rita Marley to the list. The music sounds great in One Love, as well it might. It's a movie you'll enjoy while you're watching it. But down the road, you're more likely to listen to the music than you are to return to One Love, which is merely passable.