geezer cinema: beast (baltasar kormákur, 2022)

Beast is a so-so movie, and the decision when writing about it is whether to focus on what works or what doesn't. If I talk first about what's good, it will sound as if I liked it more than I actually did. If I talk first about what's not so good, it will sound like I didn't like it at all.

So ... to the good. Idris Elba is always a good thing, and here is in a mode we don't usually see: he's scared. He plays a widowed doctor who takes his two daughters to South Africa, where their late mother grew up. Elba and the two actresses playing his daughters (Iyana Halley and Leah Sava Jeffries) make a believable family, trying to put their lives back in order. The titular beast is also great, and the CGI is seamless ... you forget it's not a real lion. It's also nice that the Beast isn't an alien from outer space or a mutant created in a laboratory. It's just a lion, big, pissed off, but a lion nonetheless, and someone even scarier as a result.

And yet I didn't care for the movie. Part of the problem lies in those daughters. It's completely unfair of me to complain that their vocal fright at their predicament is annoying ... I'd be just as scared or more so ... but honestly, as some point I just wished the lion would eat those damn kids. Also, to establish the cranky independence of the elder daughter, she is constantly doing dumb stuff that puts her in danger. This adds to the thrills, but it also makes her character seem pretty stupid (when she clearly is not).

Beast is by the numbers, and is perfectly satisfactory as a Saturday afternoon time waster at home on the couch. I won't say more.


geezer cinema/film fatales #151/african-american directors series: the woman king (gina prince-bythewood, 2022)

The Woman King delivers on everything promised in the trailer: great action, powerful women, inspiring story.

Tony and Oscar winner Viola Davis is as you've never seen her before, and it is inspiring to have a black woman in her mid-50s personify the action heroine. There are fine performances throughout the movie, so many that it's not fair to single out anyone in particular (but I'm going to do it anyway and mention Lashana Lynch). Gina Prince-Bythewood gives us strong and coherent action scenes (shoutout to fight choreographer Jénel Stevens). She pulls this off on a budget of only $50 million. Compare that to the $70 million she had to work with on The Old Guard, a solid actioner with Charlize Theron that was released on Netflix, and you'll ask yourself why after proving her action chops, Prince-Bythewood got a smaller budget to make a film centered on Black people.

But then there's the controversy, and while I tended to agree with Prince-Bythewood, who said "You cannot win an argument on Twitter", and I thought this was another case of people condemning a movie before they'd seen it, now I'm not so sure. The Woman King plays as intended if you don't know any of the history of Dahomey. But the more you learn about the history, the more problematic The Woman King becomes. (Julian Lucas has an excellent piece in The New Yorker that illuminates this.) The Woman King does acknowledge some of Dahomey's participation in the slave trade, but it deflects that history to make a "better" story. In the movie, the slave trading is connected to the Oyo Empire, who are the enemies of Dahomey, and the fight led by the Agojie (Amazons) is against slavery. In reality, Dahomey was complicit in the slave trade. As Lucas notes, "'The Woman King' chooses to make resistance to slavery its moral compass, then misrepresents a kingdom that trafficked tens of thousands", and "The film’s conceit is, charitably, an elaborate exercise in wishful thinking: Wouldn’t it be nice if Dahomey’s brave women warriors had also been fighters for justice?"

These are all worthy of discussion ... I have learned more about the history of Dahomey from reading about the protests against the film. As good as the movie is, I'm a bit surprised by the clunkiness of the responses from Prince-Bythewood and Davis to the criticisms. Davis claimed "Most of the story is fictionalized. It has to be." In the same interview, Julius Tennon (a producer on the film who also acts in it and is Davis' husband) says "It's history but we have to take license. We have to entertain people."

This may be why The Woman King, for all its excellence, isn't as good as Black Panther. The latter film is entirely fictional, and so the story can be reflective of reality without needing to copy it. The Woman King wants us to think it's based on fact, but then alters facts to "entertain people".


geezer cinema/film fatales #150: breaking (abi damaris corbin, 2022)

Breaking, like so many movies, is based on a true story of a Marine war veteran named Brian Brown-Easley who is ready to go over the edge. He has a grievance with the VA about back pay, and he wants the world to know about it, so he goes into a bank and says he has a bomb. That's a setup for a fairly standard movie, but there are a few things that raise Breaking above the norm.

Most important is the performance by John Boyega as the veteran. I've been a fan of Boyega's ever since Attack the Block, made when he was just 19. He has since proven himself as a reliable addition to any cast. He is the center of Breaking, and he is the main reason it is not just another standard film.

Director Abi Damaris Corbin also delivers, in her feature debut as a director (she also co-wrote, with Kwame Kwei-Armah, based on a story by Aaron Gell). She's not a total mystery, although as I write this she doesn't even have a Wikipedia page. From what I gather, she's a bit of a prodigy, graduating from high school at 13 and from college at 17. Breaking is a confident film, showing no sign of inexperience (her 2017 short The Suitcase won several awards ... she's not an amateur). She has received comparisons to Kathryn Bigelow, which is mostly just lazy, but Breaking does make me want to see what Corbin does next.

Finally, the film features the last performance by the great Michael K. Williams. His work here is not revelatory ... it's more that he delivers just as we always know he will. It's always good to see Williams, and it's painful to know that we won't see anything new from him now.


geezer cinema: jaws (steven spielberg, 1975)

Yes, again. The selling point this time was an new IMAX edition of the film. It was definitely worth it ... the sound in particular was awesome. Here is an excerpt from the last time I wrote about it, three years ago:

Pauline Kael told the following anecdote. "While having a drink with an older Hollywood director, I said that I’d been amazed by the assurance with which Steven Spielberg, the young director of Jaws, had toyed with the film frame. The older director said, 'He must never have seen a play; he’s the first one of us who doesn’t think in terms of the proscenium arch. With him, there’s nothing but the camera lens.'"

I thought about that latter quote while watching Jaws again. I'm not positive I understand the point, and it's likely we don't see the revolutionary nature of Spielberg's work because in the last 44 years, it's become the norm. Still, let me give it a try. Spielberg blocks his scenes for the camera, not for the stage. He uses the camera as an aid in that blocking. He doesn't simply tell the actors where to stand ... he tells them where to move within a shot, and then moves the camera to solidify what he wants on the screen. Sometimes you notice what he is doing, but other times, he makes what we are watching seem "natural", as if no one was actually directing. His skill at changing points of view allows the audience to feel a part of first one character and then another, along with the occasional omniscient angle. In the case of Jaws, credit is due to editor Verna Fields, but often, it seems that Spielberg is editing in the camera so there is nothing left to do in the editing room.

Jaws is one of four Spielberg films I consider classics, along with Close Encounters of the Third Kind (my favorite), Raiders of the Lost Ark, and E.T. Yet Jaws also changed movie history in what seems to me to be unfortunate ways. As Wikipedia notes, "Jaws was the prototypical summer blockbuster, regarded as a watershed moment in motion picture history, and it won several awards for its music and editing. It was the highest-grossing film until the release of Star Wars in 1977. Both films were pivotal in establishing the modern Hollywood business model, which pursues high box-office returns from action and adventure films with simple high-concept premises, released during the summer in thousands of theaters and heavily advertised." Jaws is a great film, and it wasn't the last great one of Spielberg's career. But this movie marks the beginning of the end of the "New Hollywood" era that began with Bonnie and Clyde. There have been many great American movies since Jaws, and however you define "New Hollywood", it still had plenty of life. But I've spent a lot of my life blaming Star Wars for what happened to Hollywood, and it's only fair to note that Jaws was there first.


geezer cinema: top gun: maverick (joseph kosinski, 2022)

Compared to the original, this was Citizen Kane. Compared to an actual good movie? It was efficient; you could picture the checklist from which they wrote the script, and my wife kept knowing in advance which item on the list would be next. If you liked the first one, and as much as I hated it I know such people exist, you would like this one, as it plays expertly on the nostalgia of its fans. Even I was touched by Val Kilmer, but mostly I just felt like I'd been worked over.

There were a couple of oddities at the showing we attended, some three months after the movie had opened. First there was what amounted to a DVD extra, a short Behind the Scenes look at the making of the film that reminded me of how much I disliked the first one. That movie felt like an ad for Navy recruitment ... this promo recalled that, even featuring a current Navy man who said the first film inspired him to join. Then came a very quick promo with Tom Cruise, essentially thanking us for coming to the theater to watch his movie. The whole thing gave off an odd vibe ... why are we watching previews for a movie we are about to see?

I once wrote about Top Gun:

It works on the theme of bonding, but I'd argue not on the level of adult male bonding ... rather, the bonding between guys that goes on in the movie is a glorified version of what 12 year old boys imagine male bonding to be like. Rio Bravo is a movie about adult male bonding; Top Gun is a movie about early-adolescent bonding. Which would be fine if we were talking about Stand By Me, but in Top Gun, the characters are adults, so I'm not sure it accomplishes what it sets out to do.

Well, it took them a few decades and the aging of Tom Cruise, but the bonding here works better, not because a bunch of older guys connect ... the core characters are young Top Guns ... but because there is a more general feeling of looking back. This falls too quickly into nostalgia pandering, but especially in the scene with Val Kilmer, you actually believe these mature men have learned something about life.

The acting can mostly be summarized by saying they cast the film well. No one stinks, everyone fits their characters. Cruise and Jennifer Connelly have more chemistry than Cruise did with Kelly McGillis in the original. In the end, it's appropriate that I'm writing this long after the film came out and made its first billion dollars. No one needs to read what I have to say. If you wanted to see it, you knew that in advance, and those billion dollars tell us you most certainly did see it.


geezer cinema: emily the criminal (john patton ford, 2022)

I consider myself an Aubrey Plaza fan, but the truth is, that comes mostly from her appearances on talk shows.

I've seen a few movies that she is in, although she's never the main character. I didn't watch Parks and Recreations. I liked her in Legion, but I didn't care for the show and didn't watch past the first season. So it's not that I came to Emily the Criminal cold, but I was interested in seeing what Plaza would do with a leading role. (She is the title character.)

She is terrific. The movie would be OK without her, but she raises the level of the film. It's a good thing, since she is in (almost?) every scene, and first-time director John Patton Ford loves close-ups. (At first, I thought he was just infatuated with Plaza, but then I noticed everyone got lots of close-ups.) Plaza has a unique trick ... her signature is her deadpan face, which is great for comedy, but here, she manages to convey a series of emotions, even though her facial expressions don't often change.

Ford's plot isn't exactly groundbreaking ... person who is drowning in debt turns to crime ... but he gives us an economical movie (95 minutes) that includes an increasingly tense series of scenes, as Emily gets deeper into her life as a criminal. Plaza makes the scenario seem believable, and she also seems to have the emotional strength to get her through some scary moments (Plaza isn't very big physically, she's not going to threaten anyone in that manner, but she is intimidating when she needs to be).

Much is made of how timely the script is, and while I can't imagine anyone stretching an analysis of Emily the Criminal into an honors thesis, you could get a decent 5-page paper out of it. Between the massive student loan debt and the misery of Emily's job (only barely better than a delivery gig), you get a feel for how desperate it can be for younger people in 2022. Ford doesn't push too hard on this, but he doesn't really need to. It's there, and that's enough for an action movie that is ultimately more a character study. And Plaza's performance is worthy of note.


geezer cinema: thor: love and thunder (taika waititi, 2022)

I've seen a lot of Marvel movies, mostly because my wife likes them. This was, in fact, the ninth Marvel movie we have seen in our Geezer Cinema series, and she picked eight (I picked Black Widow). Also, while I've seen Thor in a few Avengers movies, this was the first "Thor" movie I've seen (there are now four). I wasn't really coming cold to Love and Thunder ... well, I didn't have the Marvel Cinematic Universe context, but I'm familiar with Chris Hemsworth's take on the character, and there was a nice "Previously On" segment at the beginning to catch people like me up.

I liked Thor: Love and Thunder. I wouldn't say I loved it, but the humor (and there was a lot of it) was right up my alley, at least while I was watching it. Hemsworth alone cracks me up with his line readings as Thor ... they are some of my favorite parts of the Avengers movies he is in. There were a lot of good names in the cast, although most of them end up largely as cameos (Guardians of the Galaxy fans will like seeing those characters, but they disappear quickly, and Kat Dennings is only on screen long enough to set her fans' hearts aflutter and then she, too, is gone). The leads (besides Hemsworth, there's Christian Bale, Natalie Portman, and Tessa Thompson) are enjoyable. Special effects were OK, but I really don't care, which may be why I like most Marvel movies without loving them.

If I'm being honest, my favorite Marvel-related moment at the theater was this:

[Letterboxd list of Geezer Cinema movies]


geezer cinema: prey (dan trachtenberg, 2022)

Prey has gotten a lot of attention, in spite of (because of?) it's opening only on the Hulu streaming site. Directed by Dan Trachtenberg (10 Cloverfield Lane) and starring a cast of unknown-to-me actors, Prey is a prequel to Predator, which doesn't matter as much as you might think. I liked the original, never saw any of the endless sequels, so you could say I'm coming to this one fresh. And fresh is what it is. It will forever be thought of as part of the Predator franchise, but you don't need to be familiar with the other movies to appreciate Prey, the quality of which makes it stand on its own. Amber Midthunder has the star-making leading role as Naru ... she had a small role as a bank teller in Hell or High Water, and she was a part in the confusing TV series Legion (I only lasted through one season). Midthunder dominates her scenes in Prey, and is the best reason to see the movie.

Prey takes place at a Comanche village in 1719, and it benefits from its setting. In Predator, a rescue team led by Arnold Schwarzenegger goes to a Central American rainforest and encounters the Predator ... in a sense, they, like the alien, are intruders on the scene. But the Comanche people are defending themselves in Prey, and Naru plays the Arnold role. Another twist is that Prey is, among other things, a coming-of-age story for Naru.

The film looks great, and there are some excellent set pieces involving the Predator. For once, the character development is welcome, rather than just thrown om to make the movie last longer. This helps Prey as a movie, since the depths of Naru expand the film's reach. I admit, though, that I'm temperamentally inclined towards the kinds of overpowering action many of today's movies offer, so while Prey has depth, it didn't always have me on the edge of my seat.


geezer cinema: detective vs. sleuths (wai ka-fai, 2022)

I have a friend who lived and taught in Hong Kong for many years. I count on him to be my go-to expert on HK films. When he saw on Facebook that we had gone to see Detective vs. Sleuths, he wrote, "Good lord-—Wai Ka-Fai is back? Is it an enjoyable mess?"

"You called it," I replied, saying it was the stupidest good movie I'd seen in a long time. I added, "You know you married the right person when it's her turn to pick a movie and she comes up with Detective vs. Sleuths. Loony from start to finish, several hundred dead bodies, 8 trillion rounds fired, nonsensical plot."

With that, I feel like I've said all that needs to be said about Detective vs. Sleuths.

I had never seen a movie directed by Wai Ka-Fai, although I had seen a couple of Johnnie To movies that Wai had written, including a favorite of mine, Vengeance. I knew it had been 13 years since the last movie Wai directed ... I don't know the story on that. Well into the movie, we got non-stop action, until finally about halfway through everyone took a deep breath. The editing was excellent ... it was part of the reason no one in the audience could take a deep breath. The plot didn't really matter, although eventually it managed to make a little sense. There's an easy-to-spot Chekhov's Gun ... one of the characters is very pregnant, so you know there will come a moment in the middle of the action where she says "my water broke". There's some good acting amidst the carnage. Lau Ching-wan (Lifeline) is over the top as a crazed, hallucinatory ex-cop on the edge of becoming a psychopath, but the acting is appropriate for the part. Raymond Lam is new to me, and he was great as one of the cops. Watch the trailer, and you'll know whether you want to see it yourself.


geezer cinema: the princess (lê văn kiệt, 2022)

I first came across Lê Văn Kiệt a couple of years ago, when I watched Furie as part of a Letterboxd challenge. It was a delightful surprise. I wrote, "Everything about Furie is a little better than you expect, and the result knocks your socks off." So I was eager to see The Princess, with a decent cast of lesser-knowns (Joey King, Dominic Cooper, Olga Kurylenko, along with Veronica Ngô, who was the star of Furie), and good reviews for the action scenes. It's true, though, that overall, The Princess wasn't popular with critics (a Metascore of 43/100), or, for that matter, filmgoers (IMDB rating of 5.5/10). I actually intended to see Nope, but the theaters are still a bit crowded for us in this COVID era.

So, The Princess. Which isn't as good as Furie, but once again, it's a little better than you expect, and at times, at least, it can knock your socks off. The plot is generic (young princess is forced to marry a bad man, she tries to escape her destiny), and there's something kind of cheap about the look (it was shot in Bulgaria ... I don't know why). It reminded me of Kick-Ass, with that great performance by Chloë Grace Moretz as "Hit-Girl". Except here, the ass-kicking woman (Joey King) is a decade older than Hit-Girl, and she is the main character, not a supporting role.

As with Moretz, there is something fun about a little shrimp kicking ass, and Kiệt makes sure the Princess gets a lot of really big men to whoop on. Special kudos to fight choreographer Kefi Abrikh, who performed the same function for Furie. Joey King is clearly having a great time, Veronica Ngô is a welcome presence who has a lot to do in the second half of the film, and Olga Kurylenko combines a cool outfit, a whip, and an attitude to good effect.

This is not a great movie, and it may have benefitted from my lowered expectations. But it was certainly a fun way to spend a couple of hours (I laughed a lot).