geezer cinema: 1917 (sam mendes, 2019)

1917 is a movie with a trick. It's a technical trick, and it isn't always clear that it serves the picture as well as a more ordinary approach might. But the trick is so well done that you can't help but admire it, even though, paradoxically, the film works best when you forget about the trick.

That trick is to make 1917 appear to be shot in one take. You can't help but notice it at the beginning, when the two heroes are making their way through a long trench (1917 is a World War I story). But as the heroes encounter increasingly dangerous happenings, you occasionally forget about the one-take angle. I don't want to say the movie is at its best in those moments ... the technical achievements really are remarkable. But what raises 1917 above the level of a novelty is the acting, in particular that of Dean-Charles Chapman and George MacKay as the heroes. There is plenty of war horror, but Chapman and especially MacKay are the human element. That is what makes 1917 more than a trick.

1917 is nominated for 10 Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Cinematography. The cinematography award will surely go to Roger Deakins, and the film is worthy of many of the other Oscar categories. The narrative draws us in, and we really want the end to resemble a happy one. The movie is often hard to watch; it's not exactly entertaining, although this is appropriate for a war movie. But after two hours, we feel like we deserve a little something as we leave the theater.

What I especially liked is the way the trickery is human rather than CGI. You know that real people pulled this off. It's a bit like what makes Fury Road so much better than other recent action pictures.

World War I was one of the stupidest and most brutal wars, even given that all wars are stupid and brutal. 1917 doesn't stop to notice this ... no historical context is provided, and a lot of the brutality lies on the ground as the heroes make their trek. It might have been a better movie if such context were at least hinted at. Certainly it would be different. But the accomplishment of Mendes, Deakins and the rest isn't to be denied.


geezer cinema/film fatales #70: little women (greta gerwig, 2019)

Greta Gerwig's followup to Lady Bird shows that Gerwig hasn't lost her touch when it comes to critics. They loved Lady Bird, and now they love Little Women. (Little Women has a Metacritic score of 91/100, while Lady Bird's was 94.) Those scores are well-deserved ... Gerwig directs with a confidence that belies the fact that she is relatively new to directing.

Lady Bird was strongly autobiographical, and part of what Gerwig (who also wrote the screenplay) does with Little Women is turn a well-known, classic story into a backdoor version of autobiography. Jo, the central character, a writer, is played by Saoirse Ronan, who was also the lead in the earlier movie, and in this version of the story, Jo's attempt to make art out of the lives of her and her sisters results in a novel, Little Women, written by Jo. To a certain extent, Gerwig sidesteps Louisa May Alcott.

Ronan is excellent, as are all of the actors playing sisters: Emma Watson as Meg, Florence Pugh as Amy, and Eliza Scanlen as Beth. The grown ups are played by a fine who's who of venerable actors: Laura Dern, Tracy Letts, Bob Odenkirk, Chris Cooper. Meryl Streep is even tolerable as Aunt March. And Gerwig does a beautiful job of showing the closeness of the sisters without being too sappy.

What is missing in all of these performances, though, is the quirkiness that Gerwig brings to her own acting. (Richard Brody brings up a lot of these points in his piece, "The Compromises of Greta Gerwig’s 'Little Women'".) Both Lady Bird and Little Women are intelligent and stylish films, but neither shows the goofy freedom of Gerwig in my favorite scene of hers, from Frances Ha:

As a director, Gerwig hints at this freedom, and these movies are both quite good as is. But if Gerwig ever writes/directs an entire movie like that dance in Frances Ha, it will be magnificent. It might look something like this:

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)


movies 2019

The Letterboxd website makes it easy to compile lists like this, which I have done by hand in the past.

For instance, there is this list: "Movies I've watched in 2019".

And this list, "2019 ranked", movies from 2019 I've seen this year.

I saw 8 movies in 2019 that I gave my highest, 10-out-of-10 rating. Here they are, in alphabetical order, with links to the reviews on the blog:

I tend to hold off on giving a 10/10 to new movies ... guess I think they need to marinate for awhile. But I gave a 9/10 to one 2019 movie, and 8/10 to six more:

Lastly, here is the ongoing project my wife and I began when she retired. We see a movie a week, taking turns picking (she picked first, so you can figure out for yourself who chose what ... her first pick was John Wick 3, mine was Booksmart). We're up to 22 movies:

Geezer Cinema


geezer cinema: dark waters (todd haynes, 2019)

I wonder if people leave the theater after watching Dark Waters feeling optimistic. There is a happy ending of sorts ... we learn that the story's hero, lawyer Robert Bilott (Mark Ruffalo), has begun winning suits against DuPont. But the feeling we get as we watch the movie unfold is anything but optimistic. As Matt Zoller Seitz notes, it's "reminiscent of paranoid thrillers from the 1970s like 'The Parallax View' and 'Chinatown.'" DuPont is too powerful to be beaten in the end. When, at one point, Bilott hesitates before starting his car because he worries a bomb has been placed in it, we worry, too.

This may be the primary contribution of director Todd Haynes, for whom Dark Waters is a bit of an anomaly. This is the man, after all, whose first feature told the story of Karen Carpenter using Barbie dolls. But he is also the director of Safe, the story of a woman with unidentified environmental illnesses. That movie is also ominous ... it would make a good double-bill with Dark Waters.

Dark Waters also benefits from the performance by Mark Ruffalo, who is on screen for most of the movie. Ruffalo makes the hard-working, even obsessive lawyer for a top firm seem like an everyman who just happens to be smarter than the rest of us. He never gives up in his fight against DuPont, and that itself is what gives Dark Waters whatever optimism it manages to offer. (Somehow, I have now seen 16 movies with Mark Ruffalo, although he is not usually the lead as he is here. I recommend You Can Count on Me.)

There is some excellent acting ... I especially liked Bill Camp as a farmer whose cows are all dying. Anne Hathaway does what she can, but her part is pretty cardboard: The Wife. Dark Waters is efficient, and it seems to come close to what really happened, which is not always the case with "based on a true story" movies.


geezer cinema: knives out (rian johnson, 2019)

I guess when you've done something 20 times, it's more than a goof. Knives Out is the 20th movie my wife and I have watched under the "Geezer Cinema" category, wherein we try to go to the movies once a week, beginning when she retired.

Knives Out isn't a great movie, but it's better than you expect, and that is good enough. You expect one of those all-star nostalgic Agatha Christie movies, that work their way through retread material that appeals to the extent is reminds you of all the other such movies you've seen. What makes Knives Out different is that it uses the format as a template, but the cast and the tricks aren't stale. Rian Johnson makes it all seem fresh, which wouldn't seem possible. There is enough to satisfy the fans of the old school, but Johnson goes beyond the old, and everyone is having so much fun, you can't help but be entertained.

As is often the case with all-star casts, some people get the short end of the stick ... otherwise, you'd have a four-hour movie. Among the actors who deserved more, if not better: Don Johnson, Toni Collette, LaKeith Stanfield, Katherine Langford, and even Frank Oz. Most movies would kill for such a cast, yet in Knives Out, those are the ones who have the smallest parts. Meanwhile, people like Christopher Plummer, Michael Shannon, Chris Evans, and especially Daniel Craig and Ana de Armas really get to shine (if anyone is the true standout, it's de Armas ... it's her movie).

Johnson gives his movie a modicum of class consciousness ... not enough to rattle the nostalgia fiends, but enough to give the film something extra. There's really nothing remarkable about Knives Out, but it's very well done and it's just quirky enough to raise it above the normal giant-cast mystery.

Here is a Letterboxd page with all 20 Geezer Cinema movies so far:

https://letterboxd.com/masoo/list/geezer-cinema/detail/


geezer cinema: ford v ferrari (james mangold, 2019)

A "based on a true story" movie that takes its share of creative license without going too far astray. It's the story of Ford's attempt to win the 24 hour race at Le Mans. Historical figures like Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon), Ken Miles (Christian Bale), Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal), Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts), and Enzo Ferrari (Remo Girone) show up, while sturdy actors like Caitriona Balfe (Outlander) and Ray McKinnon (everything) provide support.

James Mangold (Logan) keeps things moving (no pun intended), so the 2 1/2 hours rarely bores the viewer. I love Caitriona Balfe, and I've never seen her on the big screen outside of Super 8 (and I admit I don't remember her in that). The problem is, she plays The Wife, which means she's largely irrelevant. As is too often the case, they might as well have left the women out of the movie, since she is only there to give depth to The Husband, and the film could have been a bit shorter without her.

The two leads are believable ... Damon has said his main reason for making the movie was so he could work with Bale. Damon even sounds like a Texan, at least to my Californian ears. Ford v Ferrari has to be entertaining, because there isn't much else to it ... it's not the deepest movie of the year. But not all entertainment needs to be deep.


geezer cinema: light from light (paul harrill, 2019)

Small film, the kind that does the festival circuit and then, as often as not, disappears. The big name in the cast is stand-up comedian Jim Gaffigan, who underplays nicely. The female lead is Marin Ireland, a Tony-nominated stage actress who turns up in a few movies and TV episodes every year without becoming anywhere near a household name. She's the best thing about the movie, quietly intelligent and modestly emotional when necessary.

Paul Harrill, who also wrote the film, seems determined to keep things low-key. It's a ghost story but not really, with the seeming supernatural touches existing only to help illuminate the characters, suffering from various forms of grief. In fact, if someone stumbled into Light from Light expecting special effects and scary moments, they would be disappointed in the extreme. The movie is only 82 minutes and moves slowly, yet I was surprised when it ended ... despite the pacing, I felt like things were just getting started. I thought we'd seen maybe an hour, yet in fact it was over. This is not a bad thing ... Harrill ends things at precisely the right moment, with nothing resolved but with the sense that the characters in the film have learned something about themselves. The audience has learned about the characters, too. It's a cautious character study that never overwhelms ... indeed, it never intends to.


geezer cinema: the good liar (bill condon, 2019)

There is nothing wrong with The Good Liar, and there are a couple of identifiable good things that will at the least please a certain segment of the film-going audience. If a movie starring two venerable English actors showing what they can do in a plot that features a twist or two sounds like something you'd like to see, you're probably right. (Of course, I could be describing the Olivier/Caine Sleuth.) Russell Tovey acquits himself well along with the Dame and the Sir. And Jim "Carson" Carter of Downton Abbey fame has a sizable role. Like I say, nothing wrong ... The Good Liar is harmless.

Nonetheless, there are no overwhelming reasons to see The Good Liar. If you need a Helen Mirren fix, The Long Good Friday or Gosford Park are better. If you want to see Ian McKellen, Gods and Monsters is a good one, and it is also directed by Bill Condon. In fact, if you only take one thing away from this post, it is that you should see Gods and Monsters, which also features the criminally underrated Brendan Fraser.


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.