geezer cinema: linda ronstadt: the sound of my voice (rob epstein and jeffrey friedman, 2019)

The Sound of My Voice suffers from some of the usual problems that come with documentaries about musicians. Most notably, we never get a full version of any songs, just excerpts. We get plenty of examples of Linda Ronstadt's remarkable voice, but each time, we're left wanting more.

Still, this is preferable to standard biopics that invent life events to match the songs the artist produces. And you don't have to worry about someone else singing for Ronstadt ... that's her on the soundtrack.

Ronstadt fans can rest assured, though. They will enjoy the musical moments, and the presentation of her life in music is straightforward, if mostly on her side. You will come away with a better understanding of why Ronstadt moved so easily between so many genres. As she says at one point, "People would think I was trying to remake myself, but I never invented myself in the first place." Gilbert & Sullivan, classic pop standards, Mexican canciones, all of these were part of her musical upbringing. However it might have seemed to audiences, Ronstadt was just singing what she knew.

The film presents a who's who of musicians and industry people who rhapsodize about Ronstadt. There is, in fact, too much of this ... every repeated gushing story takes the place of the music we came to hear.

Epstein and Friedman sidestep the issue of Ronstadt's tour of South Africa during the cultural boycott of that country. It is mentioned once, she gives a brief statement about politics and singing, and it's forgotten.

The Sound of My Voice isn't great, but fans won't care. And the final scene, of Ronstadt singing gently with family as she suffers from Parkinson's disease, is moving.

For those who want to read a detailed analysis of Ronstadt's music from a critic/fan, I recommend the 1978 essay "Living in the USA" by John Rockwell.


geezer cinema: terminator: dark fate (tim miller, 2019)

The reviews are mediocre, and the film cost so much that it's been called a box office bomb because it "only" made $29 million on its first weekend (the top box office draw, but that's not enough). I'm not sure what the problem is. It's not as good as Terminator 2: Judgment Day, but then, T2 wasn't as good as The Terminator, which remains the only classic of the bunch. I guess people have expectations.

You might say Tim Miller is up against another Miller, George, of Mad Max fame. Thirty years after the heyday of Mad Max movies, George Miller made Mad Max: Fury Road, which is not only the best film in the series, but the best movie period over the last decade. Just as Dark Fate isn't as good as the first two Terminator movies, it's no match for Fury Road. But honestly, so what?

Mackenzie Davis kicks ass at the beginning of the movie, and I am a big fan of hers since Halt and Catch Fire, so maybe I'm easily pleased. Much is made of the return of Linda Hamilton, and she is great, but for me, Davis is the highlight. The rest of the movie? Well, there are some good action sequences, it's fun to see Hamilton and Arnold together again, and if the plot is confusing, what the heck. If you don't come in expecting a return to the original (or the equal of Fury Road), you'll enjoy Dark Fate. It's no classic, but I bet in ten years, people will wonder why Dark Fate got a bad reputation.


geezer cinema: parasite (bong joon ho, 2019)

It was my turn to pick a movie for Geezer Cinema, and it wasn't hard to choose ... I've been looking forward to Parasite for a long time. This is because I've become interested in recent Korean films, and Director Bong is probably my favorite, having seen five of his movies prior to Parasite and liking them all: Memories of Murder, The Host, Mother, Snowpiercer, and Okja. Parasite isn't like the others, but that itself is a bit of a Bong tradition, as is my response. When I look back at earlier reviews, I see I repeat myself time and again. As I wrote about Okja,

Even as his films test different genres, there is a consistency to the quality of his work.... If there's a problem with this consistency, it's that I am running out of things to say. But I was also prescient ... there is no telling what he'll do next ... Snowpiercer was a futuristic sci-fi dystopia; The Host was a monster movie; Memories was a procedural. And now Okja, an anti-corporation tale where the title character is a genetically-modified "super pig" and the main human character is a young Korean girl (played by Ahn Seo-hyun).

I'm not sure I can even reduce Parasite to a specific genre, which may be a sign that I liked it even more than the others. I'll avoid a spoiler here, but I'll nonetheless note that the film's title describes the movie, if you account for the twists that take Parasite into areas you didn't expect. It is a study in class, which is a common theme in Bong's films, perhaps most clearly in Snowpiercer. It features Song Kang-Ho, who has been in four of the Bong films I've seen. Parasite starts off as one kind of movie, almost a comedy, gradually and almost unnoticed takes a turn into another kind of movie, reflects on the notion of parasites, and somehow at the end you realize it was never just one kind of movie, but always all kinds of movies. It is constantly surprising, and Bong pulls off an interesting trick: you realize something is about to happen just before it happens, but not long before ... you don't think that birthday cake is going to be important until the moment when it becomes important.

And I haven't mentioned the house that is the center of much of the action. Here is an article (with spoilers) examining the work of Bong and production designer Lee Ha Jun creating "the year's best set".


geezer cinema: ad astra (james gray, 2019)

Geezer Cinema returns after a three-week absence. (Geezer Cinema is my wife and I, both retired, seeing a movie every week, taking turns picking the film.)

My brother saw Ad Astra a few weeks ago. He didn't like it. He wrote, "Very slow moving. The father/son relationship isn't gripping. The film 'Gravity' set a high bar for cinematography in space, and this film doesn't come close to that bar."

I replied that I pretty much agreed with everything he said, but that I liked the movie.

Yes, Ad Astra is slow moving, but over the years, I've become more tolerant of that. I didn't care much about the father/son dynamic, either, and agree that this movie is no Gravity. But Gravity is one of my favorite movies, winner of seven Oscars, and if Ad Astra doesn't measure up, there is still plenty of room for it to be good.

Brad Pitt is the best thing about the movie. I've seen a lot of his movies, and he's hard to figure. He's been in some films I really didn't like (hello, Seven), and some films I liked a lot where he was a supporting character (Thelma & Louise, 12 Years a Slave). When he's the star, it's a mixed bag (Inglourious Basterds, World War Z). Ad Astra is somewhere between those two movies, not as good as Basterds, better than World War Z. But this might be Pitt's best performance in the lead. At the least, he carries the movie even if the rest is something less than great. (And when I say less than great, I'm talking in part about the roles played by Liv Tyler and Ruth Negga ... both are wasted.)


geezer cinema: end of the century (lucio castro, 2019)

End of the Century features a slight story that sneakily turns into something else. It takes quite awhile for anyone to speak ... my wife noted that it didn't seem to need subtitles, and the first time someone says something, it's "Kiss", which is helpfully subtitled as "Kiss". After that slow but not boring beginning, End of the Century turns into something of a rom-com, with more rom than com. It's pleasant, and co-stars Juan Barberini and Ramon Pujol are well-matched as the potential couple. Barcelona makes a nice setting for it all, and while I've only been there once, it seemed to me that Lucio Castro (who directed, wrote, and edited the film) chose to feature less-familiar places.

And then ... here I need to offer a spoiler warning, although as is my usual, I'll try to avoid being explicit ... we learn something startling about the two men, and Castro instantly takes us back in time 20 years (without anything specifically telling us he has done this). It's jarring at first, but we quickly settle into the "new" time frame. Mía Maestro (The Strain) turns up and is a strong addition to what is now something of a threesome.

Just as Castro blends 2019 and 1999 without quite drawing attention to itself, he presents sexuality as a blend that doesn't quite draw attention to itself. When we first meet the men, they jump into bed, but both seem to have had a relationship in the past with Maestro's character, and Castro doesn't make a lot of this. There is nothing transgressive about anyone's behavior, they just are.

But Castro isn't done surprising us, and at this point, I don't need to avoid spoilers, because I'm not sure myself what happens in the final section of the film. This is usually a sore spot for me ... I don't like confusing narratives for the most part ... but it all works as part of an examination of love and memory. I may not know what "happens", but I get a lovely sense of how people experience their lives. Real life doesn't always make sense, either, and memories are always questionable. Castro has given us an impressive first feature.


geezer cinema: downton abbey (michael engler, 2019)

If this were a consumer guide, I'd have the easiest job in the world. If you liked and watched the TV series Downton Abbey, you will like this movie. If you didn't like the series, don't bother with the movie. The only tricky area is for people who have never seen Downton Abbey but are curious. My suggestion would be to start with the TV show ... I'm not sure that the movie will appeal to someone who doesn't already have a history with the characters. But the film is more like a bonus episode than it is a standalone.

The differences are still worth noting. Primarily, Downton Abbey has always looked scrumptious, and it benefits from a big, wide, screen. (We saw it in Dolby Cinema, which wasn't all that noticeable for sound but which made scrumptious look even more so.) A couple of the new characters are interesting, largely because of the actors involved. Still, it's Downton Abbey, and no one acts too much out character, so it's a feel-good movie for the fans. Given the fairly conservative nature of the show, it is no surprise that there are no drastic changes here.

The similarities are such that I can cheat and cut-and-paste from what I wrote about the TV finale in 2016:

Julian Fellowes humanized the rich upstairs and the working downstairs, and he gave equal time to servants and royalty alike. The gradual progression of time meant we got a lot of talk about how we had to accept the future, which for the rich meant taking better care of their crops and starting new automotive businesses. But progress for the downstairs servants was always limited. Barrow was the most ambitious of the servants when the series began, and he was the most outright unlikable character on the show, as if wanting to improve himself was a bad thing. In the finale, Barrow got what he had always wanted: he became the butler. He didn’t become rich, he didn’t gain any power beyond the walls of the Abbey. But that was enough to fulfill his ambitions.

More problematic was Tom, whose social position leaped far beyond Barrow’s paltry desires. As the show began, Tom was the chauffeur, involved in socialist politics. He was quite the firebrand. Eventually, though, he marries Lady Sybil, and by the finale, he has long been established as one of the family, entrusted with Lady Mary to the managing of the estate, his socialism a thing of the past. His co-option makes the Crawleys seem liberal for their class, but they make no real concessions outside of accepting this one person. The class structure remains.

I could watch any random episode with at least some pleasure ... the dialogue was often entertaining, and much of the acting was excellent. But I had to turn off my brain, because if I thought about the show for more than five minutes, I always returned to the way Fellowes took the side of the upper class.

All of the above is true of the movie. Barrow experiences a personal moment that is heartening. Tom's past as a socialist is used for a weak and unnecessary side plot (this matters because in general, things move too quickly in the movie ... all of the characters get their turns, but for many of them, those turns are far too brief).

Of the newcomers, two stand out. Imelda Staunton, a veteran who I loved in Another Year, is the latest member of acting royalty to share dialogue with Maggie Smith. And Tuppence Middleton, one of my many favorites from Sense8, has a substantial role that seems to guarantee her presence in any future sequels.

I've gone on long enough. Once every three years seems about right to me ... I really don't need more seasons of this show.


geezer cinema

Time for an update on Geezer Cinema. We've seen ten movies now, one a week, taking turns picking the movies, starting with my wife Robin.

One thing I hadn't anticipated is that in general, these movies are bit below the standard I try to set. While I no longer include my ratings in movie posts, I still track them, and on a scale of ten, I usually average a bit over 7. But the Geezer movies so far are a bit under 7. I think I know why. All ten movies so far are recent, since we're going to the theater. I tend to give higher ratings to older movies. Plus, there are only so many current movies to pick from, whereas the rest of the time, I can pick from the entire history of film. In any event, each of us has picked five movies so far, with identical average ratings of 6.6. This is a sign that my wife knows how to pick them ... since I am the one giving the ratings, you'd think I'd rate my choices higher than hers, but that's not the case.

Here are the first ten Geezer Cinema choices:

Robin's picks:

John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum
Spider Man: Far from Home
Hobbs & Shaw
Angel Has Fallen
Official Secrets

My picks:

Booksmart
The Farewell
Blinded by the Light
Toy Story 4
Hustlers

One unsurprising note: Robin's picks average just under 126 minutes, mine average 105.6.

Here is a letterboxd list with all our movies. This will be ongoing:

Geezer Cinema List


geezer cinema/film fatales #61: hustlers (lorene scafaria, 2019)

I have to admit, I was hoping for more. Hustlers is perfectly acceptable, but I thought it would be really good, based on the reviews. Jennifer Lopez is fine ... like the movie, there's nothing wrong with her performance, but I was expecting something Oscar-worthy, and I didn't see it. (She's not even the main actress ... she's got a shot at Best Supporting Actress, but Constance Wu is the lead.) She has a star power the rest of the actors lack ... when she makes her first appearance at the strip club, wearing a thong, and men start throwing money at her, it's believable, and there is more to her in Hustlers than her ass. But again, not earthshaking.

I thought I would be watching a movie about women's friendships with each other, and it's there, but it's more toxic than I expected. They take care of each other when things are good, and when the financial crisis hits, they band together to support each other. Banding together means getting back at men, and the men deserve it, but there's less of a revenge angle than you might think. I don't know, it all felt a bit by the numbers.

Looking at the above, I see that I wanted one kind of movie and I got another. Ultimately, that's on me. Hustlers is OK, and you might think it is better than OK. I was disappointed, though. Shout out to Cardi B, who made the most of her brief appearances ... I wanted to see more from her.

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)


geezer cinema: official secrets (gavin hood, 2019)

Official Secrets is a based-on-fact story that, as far as I can tell, is reasonably close to what actually happened. Catherine Gun, a translator who works for British Intelligence, leaks a top secret memo that suggests the upcoming 2003 invasion of Iraq is illegal. Gun gave the memo to an activist friend who gave it to a journalist. Once the story became front page news, Gun confessed, and she was charged with breaking the Official Secrets Act.

Gavin Hood (Eye in the Sky) wrote the screenplay with Gregory and Sara Bernstein, and they manage to keep things from getting too confusing. The script is clearly on Gun's side, which will bother you or not, depending on your own take. Keira Knightley is in serious mode ... the film itself is pretty serious ... her presence makes us care about what happens to Catherine. There is a level of tension throughout, although the conclusion is almost a shaggy dog story (not that Hood could do anything about it ... it's what actually happened). The movie is solid, no more, no less, a decent outing if nothing else.

The cast includes Ralph Fiennes and a variety of "That Guys": Indira Varma, Matthew Goode, Matt Smith, Rhys Ifans, Tamsin Greig, Conleth Hill.


geezer cinema: toy story 4 (josh cooley, 2019)

When I was a kid, I used to love to play with windup toys. I'd crank them up and watch them perform. Didn't matter what they did ... clap cymbals together, whatever. It wasn't what they did that interested me. No, what I liked was when they started to run down. They'd get slower and slower, and I'd imagine them begging me to wind them up again before they quit, but I never did. I wanted to watch them die. And in my little kid mind, that's what was happening, not that they were toys who ran down, but that they were things I knew that died. I'd even feel something resembling sadness when they quit moving. And then, if I wasn't too bored, I'd wind it up and start all over again. It wasn't about me ... it was about the toy, about the fading away.

The Toy Story franchise is not about kids, other than as objects of toys' affection. The movies assume that kids will grow up, that they will find new toys to play with, that they will eventually outgrow toys completely. The Toy Story movies tell the tale from the point of view of the toys. Andy is a young boy in Toy Story, by Toy Story 3 he is going off to college. We barely ever see Andy, or any other humans. Andy exists to illuminate the lives of his toys.

And the biggest fear of a toy is that they will be abandoned, that their person won't play with them anymore, that they'll get stuffed into the corner of a closet. Or worse ... the incinerator scene in Toy Story 3 is one of the most terrifying things you'll ever see in a "cartoon".

Toy Story 4 suggests that there can more things to aspire to than being some kid's toy. The need to belong is intense. It's pretty much the emotional basis of a toy's life. And you are always at the mercy of your boy or girl. This feeling doesn't disappear in Toy Story 4 ... much of the plot revolves around attempts to pair toys with kids. But alternatives also present themselves. Woody, the exemplar of the toy who does everything for his owner, decides to join his love, Bo Peep, to find new owners for stray toys. He finds meaning not through a human, but through a fellow toy.

This is perhaps too much to dump on a cartoon designed to make billions. It's more important to note how good Toy Story 4 is, how efficient the animation remains, how the voice actors have created full-blooded characters over the four movies. It's also important to note that Toy Story 4 is often funny, which you might not get from all my blathering. (My wife laughed out loud when the cat barfed up a hair ball.) You can just sit back and enjoy the movie ... deep analysis isn't required. But it's worth appreciating that they have now gotten through three sequels and still haven't let the audience down. That's quite an achievement.