geezer cinema: the last duel (ridley scott, 2021)

Ridley Scott is not a hack. When I see his name in the credits, I don't decide not to watch. But I don't seek out his movies, either. He's #90 on my Directors list, which sounds good but there are only 100 directors on the list. Outside of Black Rain, none of the Ridley Scott movies I've seen have been awful, and there are some good ones mixed in there as well (I am not the biggest Blade Runner fan, but I have come to accept that it's a good one). For me, though, Thelma and Louise is easily his best, so much so that I'm always surprised to remember he was involved in that one. I'm inclined to give credit to Callie Khouri, who wrote the screenplay, although to be honest I don't know her other work.

The Last Duel is one of the good ones, much better than House of Gucci, his other 2021 film. It's 2 1/2 hours long, but it doesn't feel bloated, perhaps because of its structure: a story told from the perspective of the three main participants, so that it feels more like three 45-minute movies.

Ridley and his crew do an excellent job of convincing us we're watching the 14th century. The main actors (Matt Damon, Adam Driver, and especially Jodie Comer) are great, although the supporting cast is a bit hit-or-miss, and Ben Affleck never overcomes his bizarre hairdo. Damon and Affleck wrote the script ... more importantly, Nicole Holofcener was brought in (Damon said she was added to to help them write the female perspectives of the screenplay). Comer's character, Marguerite,  is mistreated by the men in ways that seem OK to those men, who don't see what they are doing wrong, but by the end of the movie, we have seen things from Marguerite's point of view, and it is that which lifts The Last Duel above the norm.

As is the case with this kind of Rashomon structure, the question arises who, if anyone, is telling "the truth". But it's clear that Marguerite is the one to trust (Scott called people who thought otherwise "morons" and he's not far off). So you've got a movie with good star performances, good recreations of a time long past, and an interesting perspective on how people see themselves and their actions. I don't see how it's as good as Thelma and Louise, but it is indeed one of Scott's good ones.

[Letterboxd list of Geezer Cinema movies]


geezer cinema/film fatales #129: the lost daughter (maggie gyllenhaal, 2021)

The Lost Daughter is a complicated movie, and writer/director Maggie Gyllenhaal, working from a novel by Elena Ferrante, never shows a sign that this is her first time behind the camera. It's a film about women and motherhood, told from the perspective of a woman, and Gyllenhaal's guiding hand ensures that no matter how upsetting some of the main character's action are, we still see them as part of a continuum of stereotypes that still try to force women into roles concocted by men.

Olivia Colman has the showier role as a middle-aged professor, Leda, in the modern-day segments. Jessie Buckley plays the same character 20 years earlier, and for once, the back-and-forth timeline is useful rather than ostentatious. It's a bit like the Robert De Niro scenes in The Godfather: Part II, where we learn a lot about Vito Corleone when we see his formative years. Buckley's Leda is an often-overwhelmed mother trying to balance her family life and her academic work, and it's not hard to see how this eventually turned into the Leda played by Colman. As others have noted, though, Gyllenhaal is not judgmental. Leda/Buckley can be a mess, and she doesn't always act in the perfect way with her kids, but the portrait Gyllenhaal and Buckley present does not make Leda into a monster or an angel. She's a woman of many parts, like most real people.

If the earlier Leda scenes help us understand the later Leda, that doesn't change the fact that Leda/Colman does act at times in ways that are hard to accept. Gyllenhaal may think she is avoiding a judgmental approach here as well, but Leda commits one act which is meanspirited in a way that makes her unlikeable. And yes, it's a burden for women to have to always be likeable, but the Leda of 20 years ago never falls into meanness. We may feel we know why Leda steals and hides a little girl's doll, but it's a mean act nonetheless, and I felt it the film passes judgment in ways that it mostly avoids.

Ultimately, The Lost Daughter is an excellent film that announces a new writer/director talent that we might have thought we already knew. (Ironically, as I think of Gyllenhaal's accomplishment, I can't help but connect it to her character arc in The Deuce, where she begins as a prostitute turned porn actress who eventually finds some power by becoming a porn director.)


geezer cinema: spider-man: into the spider-verse (bob persichetti, peter ramsey, and rodney rothman, 2018)

Not a lot to add, here. I watched this a couple of years ago, and haven't changed my mind since. It's a very good movie. We watched it because it was my wife's turn to pick this week's Geezer movie, she wanted to watch Spider-Man: No Way Home but we have temporarily stopped going to theaters, and she had never seen Into the Spider-Verse. Here is what I said when I watched it before:

I've finally seen it, and it is every bit as good as people said. Endlessly inventive and full of surprises. I guess fans of the comics weren't as surprised as I, who hadn't read any of the related versions. They knew that the Spider-Verse featured multiple versions of Spider-Man ... I was unspoiled and thus amazed.

Into the Spider-Verse is a bit like if Philip K. Dick had written a Marvel book. We get at least two Spider-Mans, a Spider-Woman, a Spider-Man Noir, even Spider-Ham ("Peter Porker"). Each has distinguishing characteristics, and not just visually ... time is taken to give depth to each character. It's an ambitious movie, but those ambitions are extended beyond the usual spectacle to include a human element....

Champions of Into the Spider-Verse were right. To use a cliché, it's not just a good animated film, it's a very good film, period. Fans of Marvel will like it. People who don't often take in superhero movies will like it. I liked it.


geezer cinema/film fatales #128: the power of the dog (jane campion, 2021)

This makes six Jane Campion movies I have seen ... second among women directors only to Kathryn Bigelow in terms of how many of their films I have seen (I've also seen six from Agnès Varda, who is probably my favorite woman director). I've never seen a Varda movie I didn't like a lot. I've been a fan of Bigelow for more than 30 years; I look forward to her movies and try to see them when they are released, but there has been an occasional dud (The Weight of Water). Campion is a different case. I haven't considered any I've seen to be classics (my favorite is probably An Angel at My Table), and I reacted so negatively to In the Cut that I need to see it again to figure out if I was just in a bad mood. She gets extra credit for the first season of Top of the Lake. Basically, Jane Campion has been involved with many films in my viewing experience, and while I don't always remember to include her, she certainly belongs in any list of my important directors.

A winner of multiple awards, The Power of the Dog has so much going for it. It looks beautiful (Ari Wegner is the cinematographer, with New Zealand standing in admirably for Montana). The music from Jonny Greenwood gets into your head from the start (the closed captioning makes frequent mention of "uneasy music playing"). At the least, Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, and Kodi Smit-McPhee are likely Oscar nominees, and Jesse Plemons is right there with them (plus it's always nice to see Keith Carradine). The film examines toxic masculinity so deeply that a Google search of "power of the dog toxic masculinity" gets six million hits.

And yet ... blame it on me, but despite all of the above, I wasn't quite engaged with the movie as it was playing. I threatened to doze off more than once, and it was only thanks to later reviewing of a couple of scenes that I really understood what had happened. Blame it on me ... but there was something about The Power of the Dog that lulled me. I felt almost encouraged to let my attention wander. The result was a movie that elicited a big "Huh?" from me as it ended. I worked at getting the information that would help my appreciation, and I now disavow my "Huh". But exactly why did that happen in the first place?

I'll avoid spoilers, but I want to point out the first dialogue we hear, from an unknown narrator. "When my father passed, I wanted nothing more than my mother's happiness. For what kind of man would I be if I did not help my mother? If I did not save her?" We soon ascertain who the speaker is, and these lines are crucial to the film's ending. Beyond that, I'll say no more for now, but I suspect this is a movie that will reward a second viewing down the road.

[Letterboxd list of Jane Campion movies I have seen]

[Letterboxd list of Geezer Cinema movies]

[Letterboxd list of Film Fatales movies]


geezer cinema: shang-chi and the legend of the ten rings (destin daniel cretton, 2021)

Watching Shang-Chi, I was torn between the thought that Tony Leung was the greatest actor to ever feature in a Marvel movie, and thinking he was the greatest actor of his day, period. I loved his work in John Woo movies like Red Cliff, Bullet in the Head, and Hard Boiled, and have said more than once that In the Mood for Love is the best film of the 21st century. It's fascinating to see him in a superhero movie. Shang-Chi is his first English-language film (he has always been fluent in English) and his first American movie. Credit goes in part to writer/director Destin Daniel Cretton and co-writers Dave Callahan and Andrew Lanham for giving us a villain with depth, but ultimately we can thank Leung for embodying the part of Xu Wenwu in such a compelling way. He is never not a villain, but he has believable motivations, and we have sympathy for him in ways we never felt for the likes of Thanos.

If Shang-Chi doesn't quite reach the heights of Black Panther, that's not a reason for dismissal ... few films in any genre are as good as Black Panther. But in giving us a different kind of Marvel universe (i.e., one that features Asians at its core), Cretton et al do make a Marvel movie that is a cut above the norm, Tony Leung is the primary reason for this, although it doesn't hurt that Michelle Yeoh pops up. There's something about Awkwafina that annoys me, but she certainly manages to be in some good movies. And Simi Liu as Shang-Chi is a proper hero, good looking, adept at the stunts, and a solid actor.

The latter parts of the movie are filled with CGI, when the film until that point had demonstrated the characters were what mattered. Still, it's good CGI, and I'm sure there are plenty of people who go to Marvel movies primarily for the action. This movie makes me anticipate the inevitable sequel, although I assume Tony Leung won't return, and he will most definitely be missed. In the meantime, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is the best Marvel movie since Black Panther.


geezer cinema: house of gucci (ridley scott, 2021)

I often talk about movies that "aren't for me". Usually that means I can see an artistic vision behind a film, assume the director has succeeded in their aims, but that I don't really like the film, anyway. (The Terrence Malick Syndrome.) Honestly, I'm not sure what Ridley Scott wanted to do with House of Gucci, so when I say it's "not for me", I'm speaking of something different. I run hot and cold with Scott ... Thelma and Louise is the only one of his movies I really loved, and movies like Black Rain are best forgotten. No, the reason House of Gucci is not for me is that I don't care about the fashion industry, and Scott doesn't entice me enough to be entertained for more than  2 1/2 hours. I spent those hours wondering why I was supposed to be interested in the Guccis, when I wasn't trying to figure out why it was so long.

It's only fair to note that enough silliness is going on to prevent House of Gucci from being boring. But ultimately, the movie has only one thing anyone will remember: Lady Gaga. The movie walks a thin line between camp and straight drama, and Gaga is right there with the camp aspects. But she delivers the drama, as well. She is easily the best thing in the movie.

Even she struggles with her accent. Everyone speaks with an Italian accent, and at best, the results are variable. ("It’s Time to Talk About the Accents in House of Gucci.") Gaga put a lot of work into her accent, and once you get used to it, it ceases to matter (her performance overwhelms our misgivings). And she's hardly the only culprit. Jeremy Irons works in the fine Michael Caine tradition ... he mostly just sounds English. Al Pacino, the King of Bad Accents for his work in Scarface, sounds like Al Pacino playing an Italian, which is better than nothing. Adam Driver? You got me. And do we really expect Salma Hayek to have a perfect Italian accent? I didn't care, I just wished she had more screen time.

Meanwhile, Jared Leto gives a performance so over the top, I suspect some people will say it's brilliant. It's not.

So House of Gucci is not for me. But it's not a masterpiece that I didn't get ... it's a mediocre film I didn't get, which is not the same thing. But it is still worth seeing for Lady Gaga.

(I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the soundtrack. Blondie, Donna Summer, Bowie, New Order, George Michael ... all this and more!)


geezer cinema: c'mon c'mon (mike mills, 2021)

I had liked the two Mike Mills movies I had seen (Beginners and 20th Century Women), so I was looking forward to this. I'm also a bigger fan of Joaquin Phoenix than I realized. He was in Hotel Rwanda, which I liked a lot. He starred in Her, was in the only M. Night Shyamalan I enjoyed without reservation ... I even liked Two Lovers, which also starred Gwyneth Paltrow and was a romantic drama. He has worked with interesting directors like Paul Thomas Anderson and Lynne Ramsay (and Mike Mills). If you asked me for a list of favorite actors, Phoenix would not come immediately to mind, but clearly I mostly like his work.

Phoenix does not give the only good performance in C'mon C'mon. He doesn't even give the best performance. That comes from the remarkable youngster Woody Norman. His role as a boy whose parents are struggling is central, and a poor performance could have made the movie unbearable. But Norman pulls it off and then some. (He is English, but you wouldn't know it from C'mon C'mon ... I can't easily recall another example of a young English actor doing such a great job with an American accent.) His rapport with Phoenix, who plays his umcle, is cranky, realistic, and both emotional and entertaining (even funny at times).

There are some other acting favorites of mine in C'mon C'mon. Gaby Hoffman's career has been strong, and at some point I need to forget that she is Viva's daughter. I always enjoy Scoot McNairy, and (spoiler alert) I was glad that it was Scoot and not Phoenix who played the bipolar character.

Phoenix plays a radio journalist, and Mills makes good use of a series of interviews with young people; these are real, and Molly Webster of Radiolab plays one of the interviewers. She and Phoenix and the kids add a touch of vérité to the proceedings.

C'mon C'mon is subdued and involving. It's another success for Mike Mills.

[Letterboxd list of my favorite Joaquin Phoenix movies]


geezer cinema: belfast (kenneth branagh, 2021)

There is so much to like about Belfast that it seems a sure bet to tally a boatload of Oscar nominations. And I suspect people will love it, if they see it ... one of the most common descriptions of the film in reviews is "crowd-pleaser". Yes, it takes place during The Troubles, and it doesn't shy away from that topic. But it's an autobiographical presentation from writer-director Kenneth Branagh, who was a kid at the time, and so what we see is from the perspective of a nine-year-old. The Troubles are frightening, but they are only vaguely understood by the boy, and the movie is much more a tale of a young lad than it is a political tract.

Branagh deserves accolades for what he pulls off here. The acting is excellent across the board, which to me usually means the director had a strong hand, especially when he also wrote the dialogue. Judi Dench and Ciarán Hinds as the boy's grandparents are perhaps the most obvious candidates for acting Oscars. They are wonderful, but whenever Branagh gets a little too close to the kind of heart-warming that makes a "crowd-pleaser", those grandparents are usually involved. Young Jude Hill is amazing as the boy, and again, I always credit the director when I see a top-notch child performance. That this was Hill's first acting job only adds to my admiration. I'd also mention Caitriona Balfe, who is excellent (and I'm not just saying that because she's the star of Outlander).

The movie looks great. Branagh chose black and white, and it feels right, but the occasional break into color felt like an affectation to me. (My wife thought it was marvelous.) And great use is made of Van Morrison on the soundtrack, although the song you'll be humming when you leave the theater is not Van the Man:

It says more about me than about the movie that I'm hesitant to recommend a film because it's "crowd-pleasing". It's very good ... go see it.

[Letterboxd list of Geezer Cinema movies]


geezer cinema: no time to die (cary joji fukunaga, 2021)

In 2006, I wrote, about Casino Royale:

As played by Daniel Craig, James Bond is more than a little bit of a thug. He wasn’t born to wear a tuxedo … You used to be able to start a review of a 007 movie by saying “we come to these movies because …” followed by the writer’s own theories on the topic. Who knows why people will go to Casino Royale, but what they’ll get is different from what they used to get in Bond films. Casino Royale is a movie first, a James Bond movie second, and after so many decades, that’s a good thing. But it’s a better movie for being a James Bond movie, because we bring our own preconceptions to the character, and watching them deconstruct and then begin to reassemble is more fascinating than if the main character was named Joe Blow.

It's interesting to read the above, now that Craig's run is over, because one reason No Time to Die is more emotionally involving than the usual Bond film is because the preconceptions we've always had are, by this point, informed as much by Craig as by any of the other actors to take on the role. In Casino Royale, we got our first look at the "different" Bond, and now, we see where that Bond ended up. (The middle 007 films with Craig were Quantum of Solace, Skyfall, which before No Time to Die spent the most time on character development, and Spectre.) The Craig Bonds in general have tried to be not just 007 movies but also just movies, and this approach is rewarded in this final installment.

A few women have something to do with the depth of No Time to Die. I'm not sure we'll ever find out exactly what Phoebe Waller-Bridge contributed, but she has been universally praised by the cast. Lashana Lynch is the first female 00 operative to appear in one of the movies, and she offers a comparison to the very male Bond archetype. And Léa Seydoux returns as the only substantial "Bond Girl" to appear in a second 007 movie. Her performance is strong, and her presence adds to the continuity of the Craig series in general and of Spectre in particular.

No Time to Die is not perfect. Like most of the Craig films, it goes on too long (it is, in fact, the longest-ever James Bond movie at 163 minutes). It's hard to figure out what to eliminate ... you need the action scenes, and without the emotionalism of the character studies, it would be just another Bond film. But when you combine the action scenes and the dramatic scenes, well, that's how you get a 163-minute James Bond movie.

It's no surprise that No Time to Die refers to past 007 movies, obviously including Spectre. What was interesting is that the film that comes up the most is On Her Majesty's Secret Service. It's as if someone decided to finally fix that almost-classic by replacing George Lazenby. They even trot out the famous line "We have all the time in the world" from that movie, and reprise Louis Armstrong's version of the song of the same name which was featured in OHMSS.

And speaking of music:

[Letterboxd list of James Bond movies]


geezer cinema/film fatales #124: birds of prey (and the fantabulous emancipation of one harley quinn) (cathy yan, 2020)

This is the ninth film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2021-22", "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 7th annual challenge, and my third time participating (my first year can be found at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20", and last year's at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2020-21"). Week 9 is called "Leftover Candy Week":

While making this Season's Challenge, I reviewed some of the early years for inspiration. With the years prior to my hostile takeover, the LSC lists, especially the original, included a good amount of weeks dedicated to ideas from lists made by members of the Letterboxd community. So, I figured I'd tap into those Challenge's and I'm starting with this wonderful Candy Cinema list by Cole Thompson. There are a number of lists of this ilk on the site, but this one really nails the vibes it's looking to represent. If you're out of Halloween candy, here's one last piece for your eyes.

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen Candy Cinema film from Cole Thompson's list. (Films that have vivid colourful cinematography/production design/costume design/overall art direction as a strong presence in its filmmaking. They tend to use the full spectrum of colour or focus on one particular colour that dominates the film.)

Let's end the suspense ... Birds of Prey is an awful movie. Mick LaSalle's negative review, titled "Movies don’t get any worse than ‘Birds of Prey.’ This is the bottom", is very quotable. He called it "more than horrible. It should not exist. Money should never have been raised for it. The screenplay should never have been filmed. Margot Robbie shouldn’t have produced it. She certainly shouldn’t have starred in it. It’s just a terrible thing to inflict on audiences, who, after all, didn’t hurt anyone and just hoped to have a nice time." Definitely a case of "tell us what you really thought, Mick".

It took me about ten minutes to realize Birds of Prey sucked, so I guess you could say those first minutes were OK. And there's a fight scene near the end that is pretty good. But mostly, it sucked. In fairness, it's a fine choice for this week's challenge ... it has vivid design and makes good use of color. But mostly, I watched with my jaw open at the realization that I was watching a bad movie.

I liked The Suicide Squad, so if you're looking for a Harley Quinn fix, go there. Even better, watch Michelle Yeoh, Anita Mui, and Maggie Cheung in The Heroic Trio: