geezer cinema/film fatales #94: babyteeth (shannon murphy, 2019)

I'm a sucker for tales of teenage girls, so this combination of coming-of-age story and possibly fatal disease worked for me, even though the latter isn't my favorite genre.

The team behind Babyteeth have worked under the radar. This is director Shannon Murphy's first feature, and I didn't know her, but she's been directing series television since 2013, so she's no amateur. This was also the first writing credit for Rita Kalnejais, although again, she's no amateur ... Babyteeth is based on her stage play. Not sure it means anything, but as of this writing, Kalnejais doesn't even have a Wikipedia page, which can also be said for Toby Wallace, who plays "the boyfriend", and Eugene Gilfedder, playing a music teacher. And once more, these aren't amateurs ... Gilfedder has acting credits, mostly in TV, going back to 1993, and young Wallace also has plenty of TV credits. So, unknown to me, sure, but they weren't hired to give the "authentic" feel an amateur offers.

The female leads, though, are people I know, although in both cases, they snuck up on me. Eliza Scanlen was Milla, the teenager with the terminal illness; she looked familiar, and at first, I thought it was because she kind of resembles Alison Pill. But actually, she's been in a couple of recent things, the HBO mini-series Sharp Objects, and Greta Gerwig's Little Women (she was Beth). As for Essie Davis, who played Milla's mom, all I knew about her was that she was in The Babadook that I love so much, and I commented early on that I didn't remember her in that movie, that in fact, all I could remember from The Babadook was the mother and the son. Imagine my embarrassment when I finally realized Davis was the mom in Babadook! (Hey, her hair was a different color.)

Just about everything works in Babyteeth. Scanlen impressively goes through a lot of different emotions. Toby Wallace is believable as the "dangerous" boyfriend (someone mentioned that they were reminded of Valley Girl). Davis has a stereotypical role (middle-aged mom with a drug problem) ... actually, much of what happens in Babyteeth reminds us of standard weepies, but it feels fresh just the same ... anyway, like Wallace, Davis is believable as a character you don't usually see outside of movies (and she gets the movie's best line: "This is the worst possible parenting I can imagine"). Toss in Ben Mendelsohn as the dad, and you've got a very capable cast. Murphy is unafraid to step slightly outside the lines in her direction, and whatever Kalnejais did in the transfer from stage to screen is seamless ... not once did I think, "this is based on a play". As many critics have noted, Babyteeth is familiar enough to trick us into thinking we know what is coming, and quirky enough to frustrate our expectations just the same.

And it's funnier than the above might suggest.

(Letterboxd list of our Geezer Cinema movies.)

(Letterboxd list of Film Fatales movies.)

geezer cinema: logan lucky (steven soderbergh, 2017)

Letterboxd member "Katie" said of Logan Lucky, "this movie is the only good thing left in this godforsaken planet and we took it for granted. 5 stars out of 5". That put me in a good mood prior to watching it. It has been compared to Steven Soderbergh's "Ocean" movies ... I only saw the first one and wasn't overwhelmed enough to watch the next two. But I like Soderbergh's films in general, and have a soft spot in my heart for Out of Sight. I also liked his television series The Knick.

Soderbergh had taken a hiatus prior to Logan Lucky ... he did a lot of other things (like The Knick) but did not direct any features. So Logan Lucky was anticipated by his fans. He was able to put together a great cast, including Channing Tatum, Adam Driver, Daniel Craig, Riley Keough, Hilary Swank, and Katie Holmes. The film takes place in the South, and the various actors' various accents are variable, to be kind ... only Tatum actually grew up in the South (I would have thought Riley Keough was a Southerner ... she's Elvis' granddaughter, after all ... but nope). The writing is so entertaining, and the acting (outside of the accents) so fun, that the movie scoots along, and those accents don't really matter.

On one level, there's nothing here ... as one character says of the robbery that is the central plot line of the film, "I heard that they're calling it 'Ocean's 7-Eleven', 'cos they found that truck with the money behind a convenience store." Yet Soderbergh pulls it off. The robbery is intricately plotted (they are going to rob the Charlotte Motor Speedway during the Coca-Cola 600), and it often seems like things are getting away from Soderbergh. But it all comes together, and there is real pleasure in seeing that happen.

There are a lot of pseudonyms in the credits. Soderbergh's wife Jules Asner apparently wrote the screenplay ("Rebecca Blunt", an unknown, gets the credit), and Soderbergh, as is often the case, is the Director of Photography (as "Peter Andrews") and Editor (as "Mary Ann Bernard"). None of this matters as you are watching Logan Lucky, of course. I was having such a good time I didn't think about any of it until the movie was over.

I'd say "Katie" went a bit overboard with "5 stars out of 5", but Logan Lucky definitely hit the spot.

(Letterboxd list of our Geezer Cinema movies.)

geezer cinema/film fatales #92: crip camp (james lebrecht, nicole newnham, 2020)

Crip Camp is a spirit-lifting documentary about disabled people, that takes a few interesting turns while remaining a fairly typical film of its type. It comes from Higher Ground, the production company started by the Obamas, who won an Oscar for their first film, American Factory. That movie was solid, but too set on taking the middle of the road. Crip Camp tells a more radical story, for the better.

The film seems harmlessly positive at first, showing us Camp Jened, near Woodstock both geographically and philosophically, in 1971. Camp Jened was a summer camp for people with disabilities that drew on the loose structure of the hippie community. While pleasant, I didn't see how the film makers would get 106 minutes out of the camp.

But they soon showed their intentions, by telling the stories of some of the camp goers later in their lives. And some of them became activists, and as their stories unfold, Crip Camp moves beyond the centrism of American Factory. The key figure is Judith Heumann, who went on to co-found the Disabled in Action organization. Later she moved to Berkeley and became a leader at the Center for Independent Living (about which more in a bit). In 1977, she led a sit-in which resulted in what later became the Americans with Disabilities Act. She also worked in the Clinton and Obama administrations.

When the film moves to Berkeley, things became quite familiar for my wife and I. The Center for Independent Living has long been a force in Berkeley life ... the first place we lived in Berkeley after we married was only a clock or two from the Center. We can remember the fight to put wheelchair curb ramps at street corners, something you take for granted after all these years. It was good to see the beginnings of those fights. Also, during the footage from the 70s and 80s, we kept recognizing people and places. Irrelevant to the value of the movie, but it made an impact on us.

We also learn near the end that another of the "stars" of the old Camp Jened footage, "Jimmy", was in fact James Lebrecht, the co-director of Crip Camp and the person who came up with the idea for the film.

A movie that simply documented the life at Camp Jened would have been nice, but by using those scenes as a starting point for a continuance of the story was a big improvement.

(Here is a letterboxd list of Film Fatales movies.)

(Letterboxd list of our Geezer Cinema movies.)

geezer cinema: john wick: chapter 2 (chad stahelski, 2017)

I've run out of things to say about the John Wick movies. I've watched them out of order ... the first, then the third, now the second. It doesn't matter. When I wrote about Chapter 3, I quoted what I'd written about the original John Wick. And I could pull that quote again and it would fit right in for Chapter 2. What the heck, here's the quote:

John Wick ratchets up the action, to be sure, but not to the extent the Raid movies manage. Also, most of Keanu’s work involves shooting people, and while the body count is impressive, and Keanu’s got the moves, eventually it gets kinda boring watching yet another gun battle/slaughter. Martial arts movies like the Raids offer much more variety, and thus, much less boredom.

Chad Stahelski does a good job with the action scenes ... I bring this up whenever a film maker goes old school, but you always know where you are, which is uncommon these days. Keanu has his unique charisma, and you can tell he's doing most of his own stunts. I have nothing against any of these movies. But I can't tell one from the other. My wife, who chose this for Geezer Cinema, says 2 is the best, 3 the worst. Might as well take her word for it ... she likes them more than I do.

(Letterboxd list of our Geezer Cinema movies.)

geezer cinema/film fatales #91: lost girls (liz garbus, 2020)

Liz Garbus (What Happened, Miss Simone?) is a documentary film maker, and Lost Girls is one of those "based on a true story" movies, which makes it an interesting choice for Garbus' first fiction film. And sure enough, Lost Girls plays a lot like a documentary, except for the obvious fact that there are actors like Amy Ryan (Gone Baby Gone) rather than the actual people. Ryan is perfectly cast ... well, anytime Amy Ryan is on the screen, she is perfectly cast, because she's a great actress ... she can make you forget she's an actress, which is appropriate for this kind of docudrama.

Which isn't to say that Ryan is low-key here. Her anger throughout is palpable, and it drives a movie that we know from the outset will have no closure (we are informed at the beginning that Lost Girls is "an unsolved american mystery"). Her Mari Gilbert is a mess, but when her eldest daughter disappears, Mari persists in searching for the truth, most often by pressing the police, who aren't good for much. If this were a different story, Gilbert might be plucky ... at one point, a detective calls her "feisty", which amounts to the same thing. But Mari is a bit deranged, which is partly why she is so dedicated to finding what happened to her daughter, but which doesn't really match with a stereotypical pluckiness. But, there is no avoiding the conclusion ... in real life, the culprit has never been found ... and whatever resolution Gilbert achieves must remain philosophical at best.

Stay for the brief words at the end which, in good true-crime fashion, tell us what has happened to the characters since the film's conclusion. There, we learn of one person's closure that is unexpected and unsettling, to say the least.

(Letterboxd list of our Geezer Cinema movies.)

(Here is a letterboxd list of Film Fatales movies.)

what i watched

Joker (Todd Phillips, 2019). Interesting, unpleasant take on comic book evil. Joaquin Phoenix does wonders in the title role ... it's clearly intended as Oscar bait (and it worked ... he won the Oscar over Antonio Banderas and others), but Phoenix doesn't take the easy route. He's showy in that Oscar way, but he never invites us in, never turns sympathetic. Compared to the charisma of Jack Nicholson (or Cesar Romero, for that matter), Phoenix's Joker is practically another character. That character is Rupert Pupkin from The King of Comedy, a clear influence on Joker.

There's little attempt to blame society for Joker's problems ... whatever social commentary sneaks into the movie is mostly unrelated to the story of Arthur Fleck, a disturbed individual (although his presence does create the environment for rioting mobs). Arthur had an abusive father and a schizophrenic mother. Phoenix dives right in, and it's something to behold, but as I say, it's unpleasant. I don't know why anyone would watch this a second time. If I did, I might examine why I find Taxi Driver so much better than this film. #919 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century.

Not that it explains anything, but if you watch this scene, note that Arthur works as a clown (hence the outfit), and he suffers from a disorder where he laughs at inappropriate moments.

Geezer Cinema: Project Power (Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, 2020). By-the-numbers futuristic action film with sci-fi elements. Jamie Foxx is allowed to have charisma, and Joseph-Gordon Levitt is good, as always, but Dominique Fishback (The Deuce) steals the film. The rationale for the plot (pills that offer five minutes of superpowers) is silly, although I don't know that anyone making the movie cared. The special effects are solid, it's a passable way to waste two hours, and it sets up a possible sequel. I can't wait.

(Letterboxd list of our Geezer Cinema movies.)

geezer cinema/film fatales #90: the assistant (kitty green, 2019)

Writing about the TV remake/prequel of Perry Mason, Sarah Marrs explained:

Something has happened in prestige dramas over the last few years: shows have stopped being ABOUT things. Spectacular performances and writing abound, but ask me what these shows are ABOUT, and I draw a blank. Plot has replaced story as the engine of good drama (plot = what is happening, story = why it is happening), and Perry Mason perfectly exemplifies the trend.

I read this the day before watching The Assistant, and the distinction between plot and story had extra resonance. When it is my turn to pick in our weekly Geezer Cinema, I take my wife's taste into my decision. I won't watch something unless I want to see it, but if I've narrowed it down, I might pick a movie I think she'll like, as well. She liked the trailer for The Assistant, and it seemed like a safe pick, although as is usual for me, I knew next to nothing about the movie going in.

For more than half the movie, it seems as if nothing is happening in The Assistant. My wife likes plot, and I sensed The Assistant wasn't doing anything for her. So, when our viewing was interrupted for a moment, I took the opportunity to talk about Marrs' notion of plot and story. Our movie lacked for plot, but we were learning about the title character, which passes for story. She liked the concept, and we continued with the film.

Eventually, a plot emerged, and if I watched it a second time, I suspect that plot would be obvious quite early. As is usual for us, my wife figured out what was going on long before I did. But it may be a step too far to say The Assistant ever got around to a plot. Instead, there was a situation, a situation that illuminated the film ... we learn the Why.

It's possible that Kitty Green, the documentary filmmaker who makes her fiction debut here (she also wrote it) may have made The Assistant too good. The largest part of the film shows an office assistant (Julia Garner) dealing with the drudgery of her job. We see how she is ignored ... she does things without which the office would fall apart, but no one notices her. Garner is excellent, and Green certainly makes us feel the awfulness. But she is so successful that my attention wandered. As Mick LaSalle noted, "The film is worthy and ages well in memory. It was definitely worth making and is almost as definitely worth watching. But it must be admitted that this movie, which is about someone in an office assistant job, is sometimes as stultifying as actually being in such a job. In a sense, boredom is part of the director’s strategy, but boredom is a dangerous substance and must be employed carefully."

(Letterboxd list of our Geezer Cinema movies.)

(Here is a letterboxd list of Film Fatales movies.)

geezer cinema: the outpost (rod lurie, 2020)

Fictional recreation of a non-fiction book by CNN's Jake Tapper. I can not speak to the verisimilitude of the film, but it has been praised by participants.

The hardest thing about making a war film is balancing the human heroics with the possibility of making a pro-war movie. Of course, not everyone worries about this distinction ... there are many pro-war movies with heroic behavior. But there are also films like John Huston's WWII documentary The Battle of San Pietro. The Army delayed its release, fearing the brutal realism would hurt morale. Some called San Pietro an anti-war film, and Huston agreed. But the soldiers in the film are heroic, and no matter how disturbing the footage and no matter the intent of Huston, The Battle of San Pietro is ultimately a story that doesn't exactly glorify war but which presents the soldiers in a heroic light.

The Outpost is filled with regular soldiers acting heroically. Their heroism drives the picture. And the setup (American soldiers stuck in "Camp Custer", an indefensible position from which no one expects to escape) puts us on the side of the soldiers when the Taliban begins the inevitable attack. What follows is a bit by-the-book, but Rod Lurie films effectively ... we never lose sight of where we are during the long second half. But The Outpost never has any pretenses towards being an anti-war film. We learn that a few officers were disciplined for their poor planning and leadership, but there is no sense that the Army itself is the problem. Compare this with the mini-series Generation Kill, which never hesitates to indict the powers that be.

The actors do what they can ... they work great as a group, and it's not their fault the script as written doesn't ask too many characters to stand out individually. Scott Eastwood sounds like dad, and Caleb Landry Jones does wonders with the most showy role. There's a crappy song for those who need to be beaten over the head so they don't miss anything important. The Outpost is a solid film that, especially in its second half, will engross most audiences.

(Letterboxd list of our Geezer Cinema movies.)

geezer cinema: driveways (andrew ahn, 2019)

What a lovely movie! Quiet but never mundane, thoughtful, with great acting.

"Lovely" is not an adjective I use very often to describe a movie, but Driveways earns it. The subject matter isn't unique, and director Andrew Ahn doesn't show off. He just makes room for his story and his actors to shine, and they do. Driveways tells of the budding relationship between a nine-year-old boy and an octogenarian widower. I feared cheap sentiment and audience manipulation, but Ahn and writers Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen avoid this, letting the emotional impact grow gradually over the course of the film. Some movies like this work the audience over. Thankfully, Driveways moves us without taking away our dignity.

The cast has people I know and a lot of new-to-me actors, all of whom make their mark. I knew Hong Chau, who plays the boy's mother, from Treme and Watchmen. She's versatile ... her characters in those television shows were unlike each other, and in Driveways, she's at it again. She's frazzled, and her relationship with her son is more friend than mom, but their connection feels natural. Lucas Jaye plays the boy, and I'd never heard of him, although he already has a long resume of TV work (the only thing I recognized was Angie Tribeca, and I don't remember him from that). He, too, gives us natural and believable acting. Often it's the child actors that doom films like this, but Jaye is a highlight. (And, as always, I like to give props to the director, because I know how hard it is to get a good performance from a kid.) I recognized a couple of other names, again people I know from television. Christine Ebersole almost overplays her role as a well-meaning but rather obnoxious neighbor ... emphasis on almost. And Jerry Adler, Hesh from The Sopranos, makes the most of his scenes.

The standout is Brian Dennehy as the widower. He has such presence ... my wife and I agreed he makes everything he is in better. Perhaps the best proof of this is that when I looked at his credits, I haven't actually seen him in that many things ... he sticks in my mind anyway. Bos and Thureen give him plenty to work with. This widower is never stereotypical ... he never tells the kid to get off his lawn, but neither is he a meaningless benign character.

Watching Driveways, it's impossible to forget that Dennehy died just a couple of months ago. But Ahn and Dennehy never milk this fact ... this isn't Spencer Tracy in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner. I kept waiting for that big scene that had OSCAR written on it, but when it finally came, I didn't notice at first, precisely because it wasn't showy. Dennehy starts talking to the boy, draws us into his monologue, and without our really noticing, he talks for six minutes, after which the credits roll. It's the best scene in the movie. It's like Bos and Thureen give Dennehy a present, Ahn lets Dennehy enjoy the moment, and Dennehy gives the present back to us in the audience.

(Letterboxd list of our Geezer Cinema movies.)

geezer cinema/film fatales#87: the old guard (gina prince-bythewood, 2020)

A superhero movie with a difference, starting with the fact that if, like me, you came to the movie cold, you couldn't tell it was a superhero movie until things were well underway. Gina Prince-Bythewood (Beyond the Lights) gives us a movie that falls into one of my most-used genres, where a movie is praised for what it doesn't do. There are action scenes, but they tend to be more individual fighting rather than car chases. Time is offered to give depth to all of the main characters ... I usually balk at such things, because the efforts are half-hearted and I just want to get to the good stuff. But Prince-Bythewood pulls another switch on the standard superhero film, by making the characters matter. No one wears a costume, and they only have one super power (which does give them the chance to become really good at fighting).

The Old Guard has a strong cast, beginning with Charlize Theron in the lead. Theron is an Oscar winner with a solid pedigree in action pictures as well, from the sublime (Mad Max: Fury Road) to the not-so-sublime (Atomic Blonde). The Old Guard is in the middle, quite a bit better than Atomic Blonde without reaching the heights of Fury Road.

Theron once again does many of her own stunts, which makes her performance more believable. KiKi Layne (If Beale Street Could Talk) is a standout as the second lead, and it was good to see Anamaria Marinca (4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days) in a minor role. The plot is a little silly, and the movie drags at times (it clocks in at just over 2 hours). But you'll find yourself caring, not just about the action, but also about the characters. Which will be especially important when the inevitable sequel arrives.

(Here is a letterboxd list of Film Fatales movies.)

(Here is a letterboxd list of movies with African-American directors.)