geezer cinema/film fatales #123: worth (sara colangelo, 2020)

(This will be the last Geezer Cinema for a while ... we'll get back to it in November.)

Worth tells the based-on-a-true-story of the attempt to assign dollar figures to compensation payouts for victims of 9/11. The head of the compensation fund, Kenneth Feinberg, (Michael Keaton), takes a big picture approach, but the film doesn't just buy into this. Over the course of the film we learn about several of the individuals due compensation ... not a lot, but enough to remind us we're talking lots of people, not just one big group of people. One or two victims are singled out for more extensive examination. It's a well-structured film, starting with the view from the top and then showing the effects on those who aren't there.

The cast is impressive. Besides Keaton, there's Amy Ryan, Stanley Tucci, and plenty of "hey, it's that guys". And they do more than show up ... each delivers a solid performance.

There are a couple of flaws, though. First, the legal situation is never clearly explained. We know that the airlines want to cut a deal. We know there are concerns about the effect of everything on the economy. We know that some people feel they are being screwed over. But most of it whooshed over my head. I fell back on rooting for the victims, and that was good enough, but I still can't really tell you about the inner workings of the Victims Compensation Fund.

Also, Feinberg was a consultant on the film, which may explain why Worth is about him far more than it is about the victims. It's not that Feinberg's character is whitewashed ... he comes across as a decent guy who doesn't always get "It". But the central theme of Worth is how damaging the process is to people like Feinberg, not to the victims. Given that theme, Worth is fine, but I wanted more.

Worth is the first film I have seen directed by Sara Colangelo, and she does OK. I wouldn't be surprised if I never heard from her again, but it's just as likely she's got some great movies in her future.

[Letterboxd list of Film Fatales]

[Letterboxd list of Geezer Cinema]

geezer cinema: film fatales #121: shiva baby (emma seligman, 2020)

Shiva Baby grew out of a short student film created by Emma Seligman and starring Rachel Sennott. At 78 minutes, it still feels a bit like a short, but it's so packed with eventful scenes you could imagine it running for another half an hour. The film takes place in a 24-hour period, most of which occurs at a shiva. Seligman and cinematographer Maria Rusche do a great job of simultaneously giving the feel of claustrophobia while still finding plenty of space for intimate conversations. People are regularly leaving one crowded room for a less-crowded room where they can talk things out.

The film is steeped in Jewish culture (ironically, Dianna Agron, who plays a shiksa princess, is Jewish, while Rachel Sennott, who plays the lead, Danielle, is not), but it feels universal, a coming of age story with well-meaning but intrusive family and plenty of "experimenting" for Danielle. At times, Seligman inches close to stereotype, but never dives completely in, in part because Danielle is at the center of everything that happens, and we get to know her as an actual person. The cast is good across the board, although for the most part I never figured out exactly who was who (as I say, close to stereotype). Polly Draper and Fred Melamed are on target as Danielle's parents, who want the best for their daughter but don't always know what "the best" might be. Molly Gordon is a standout as Maya, Danielle's ex-lover ... there's a bite to her personality, yet in some ways I found her the most likeable character in the film.

Shiva Baby is relentless in locking Danielle into uncomfortable situations. And there is a baby that cries pretty much every time it turns up on screen, eventually making the soundtrack feel a bit like a horror film. Which Shiva Baby is, in an odd sort of way. At least until what I found to be a semi-happy ending.

[Letterboxd list of Film Fatales]

[Letterboxd list of Geezer Cinema]

geezer cinema: the personal history of david copperfield (armando iannucci, 2019)

The word that comes to mind is "whimsical".

The long, stuffed-to-the-brim original novel begs for the kind of multiple-episode series that has room for the kitchen sink, and in fact there are at least five attempts at that kind of serializing. In reducing David Copperfield to a two-hour running time, Armando Iannucci, the director-producer-cowriter, necessarily admits in advance that he intends to truncate. Nonetheless, Iannucci manages to squeeze in a very large cast of characters. Only a few are truly fleshed out, and casting does a lot of the work here. Actors like Tilda Swinton (Betsey Trotwood), Hugh Laurie (Mr. Dick), and Peter Capaldi (Micawber) are able to blend their skills with our perceptions of their past work to make the characters feel welcomed. Opposite to this, Ben Whishaw has been good in a variety of roles over the years, but he climbs into the unctuous Uriah Heep so completely that I forget Whishaw was in the movie until the closing credits. Gwendoline Christie (Game of Thrones) is probably always going to be recognized because of her height, but she makes the most of her limited screen time. Finally, Iannucci manages to give us diverse casting that doesn't just feel like pandering (Benedict Wong and Rosalind Eleazer are a perfect father and daughter, and the best example of how this casting works). Of course, Dev Patel as David is the most obviously diverse piece of casting, but what matters is that Patel is a fine actor who gets all of the various aspects of David as the character grows older.

Things do move too quickly at times ... again, it would be nice to see this as a mini-series. But each scene in its moment is solid, and rarely does Iannucci leave us scratching our heads and wondering what we missed. The Personal History of David Copperfield is as good of a two-hour version of Dickens' novel as you are likely to encounter.

[Letterboxd list of Geezer Cinema movies]

geezer cinema: lock, stock, and two smoking barrels (guy ritchie, 1998)

This is the first 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 1 is called "Lucky Seven Week":

Looking to score some luck with our first week! Since it's our lucky seventh Season, let's roll the dice on some gambling films and hope not to go bust by the end!

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen film about gambling. Here's a list to help you get started.

The start of a new Letterboxd Season Challenge. My previous challenges have led to a mixed bunch of films, some very good (most notably The Shape of Water and French Cancan in 19-20), some not so good (The Beast of Yucca Flats from that same challenge). But I love the opportunity to check out new-to-me movies that someone else has decided might be fun. And so, to gambling films and Guy Ritchie.

I've only seen a few of Ritchie's movies, and outside of the first Sherlock Holmes, I'm unimpressed. His movies are hectic, complicated just to be complicated, and showy to no purpose. Tarantino does it all better. Lock Stock, Ritchie's first feature, fits this description, but it did have some positives. Jason Statham got his first role, as did legendary Welsh "hard man" soccer player Vinnie Jones ... he does well here. Sting pops up in a couple of scenes. The soundtrack is fun. There are hardly any women in the cast, which speaks to what matters to Ritchie. You might scratch your head at times trying to figure out what is going on, or which character is which, or what the hell the actors with their thick accents are saying. But you probably won't be bored.

Among the other "gambling movie" choices people selected for the challenge were Casino RoyaleThe Cooler, and The Killing of a Chinese Bookie.

[Letterboxd list of Geezer Cinema movies]

geezer cinema: cruella (craig gillespie, 2021)

I know I'm out of touch when it comes to a movie like Cruella (and it doesn't help that my brain is addled from too much cannabis to deal with too much post-op pain). There's nothing really wrong with Cruella, outside of its ridiculous 134-minute running time. And the two Emmas in the lead roles (Stone and Thompson) ham it up quite properly. But I don't know that there was any reason to make the movie in the first place, which is evidence that I am out of touch.

I mean, the reason Cruella exists is easy to find. 101 Dalmatians, the live-action remake of the 60s animated hit, with Glenn Close as Cruella, returned $320 million on a reported budget of $75 million. The box office for the sequel (102 Dalmations) wasn't as promising: $183 million on an $85 million budget.

Cruella is a prequel to those movies, an origin story if you will. An origin for a villain, which means it's tricky to get the audience on Cruella's side. You have to show that there was something good in the beginning, you have to show the evil Cruella emerging, and you have to do this while retaining the audience's sympathy for the title character. It's something like Joker, but Cruella isn't nearly mean enough. The costume design is in your face, and to the extent I know anything about costumes, I'd say Cruella's best shot at an Oscar would be for costumes. Meanwhile, a sequel is being planned.

[Letterboxd list of Geezer Cinema movies]

geezer cinema: medium cool (haskell wexler, 1969)

Medium Cool is legendary for a reason. Haskell Wexler used documentary techniques to tell a fictional story, and knew where to go and what to do with the camera. He may not have been able to predict just how crazy it would get in Chicago in August of 1968, but he knew it was a place to be, and that something could happen.

Robert Forster plays a news cameraperson, John Cassellis, who ends up on the streets of Chicago and learns something about how the people on those streets perceive the work he and his fellow journalists do. Part of him maintains a distance from the story, but he's too smart to avoid some of the implications. It's a key moment for John when he finds out his network lets the cops and the FBI see his footage.

Meanwhile, the entire Medium Cool project confronts the boundaries between fiction and documentary. Verna Bloom, a professional actor from New England in her first movie, is so convincing as a woman who has moved to Chicago from West Virginia that some people thought she was an amateur. Bloom has talked about the odd dual nature of her performance ... Wexler had her walking around during the police riots on the streets, and Bloom is both doing her job as an actor and experiencing the violence in reality. It is these documentary-style scenes that lift Medium Cool above the norm, as the plot is serviceable but no more, and some of the larger political points are muddled. But as the riots take hold, Medium Cool is gripping in ways that surpass the usual film.

The ending is weak ... it feels out of place, like something out of a more traditional Hollywood movie. But the last shot, of Wexler pointing a camera at us as the crowd chants "The whole world's watching!" is the perfect summation.

[Letterboxd list of Geezer Cinema movies]

geezer cinema: beckett (ferdinando cito filomarino, 2021)

I guess John David Washington is a thing now. He starred in Tenet, which was a Geezer Cinema movie for us a couple of months ago. I wrote a few paragraphs without ever mentioning his name (I did talk about Elizabeth Debicki, though). He's not bad in Tenet, nor is he bad in Beckett, although his most notable feature seems to be the oddity of hearing the voice of his father Denzel coming out of John David's mouth. Beckett reminds you of other good movies, particularly the paranoid thrillers of the 70s. The problem is, Beckett isn't as good as the best of those films. Truth is, it's not as good as a lot of films that come to mind, and if that sounds vague, well, I'm still not sure what the hell Beckett was about so I'm going with vague.

Washington is a good choice to play an average Joe who needs to demonstrate some staying power during the kind of physical action that normally would go to a stuntman. But the character is like Job ... everything happens to him, and he keeps coming back for more. The Energizer bunny is a good comp, or the new-model Terminator played by Robert Patrick in T2 that was indestructible. I think they were trying to suggest John McClane in Die Hard, but Beckett is nowhere near as good a movie, and eventually the things that pile onto Beckett become too ludicrous to ignore. Linda Holmes began her review of the film:

There is a moment in the new Netflix thriller Beckett in which the main character played by John David Washington — who's already been in a rollover accident, been shot, been tased, been stung by bees, and likely broken both of his ankles — gets flex cuffs slapped on him, and now he's on the run ... in flex cuffs. The movie isn't even half over.

For what it's worth, Holmes kinda liked Beckett. And I wanted to like it ... I have nothing against mindless action, even though I usually roll my eyes at attempts to add meaningful context by claiming the movie is about politics, Greek, American, or whatever. But Beckett is ultimately just plain stupid, and by the time it ended, I had given up all efforts at any suspension of disbelief.

[Letterboxd list of Geezer Cinema movies]

geezer cinema: the suicide squad (james gunn, 2021)

I'll start by saying I liked The Suicide Squad. I'll add that I was surprised I liked it as much as I did, because I don't have a good history with James Gunn. I first came across him with Scooby-Doo (2002), for which he wrote the screenplay ... the first line of my brief review was "Scooby-Doo really stinks." Next was Dawn of the Dead (2004), which again had a James Gunn screenplay and which was a huge improvement on Scooby-Doo. Ten years later, I caught up with him again, now as a writer-director, with the first two Guardians of the Galaxy movies. I didn't like the first, thought the second was only a slight improvement. But The Suicide Squad was getting good reviews from unlikely sources, so I jumped back in to James Gunn world. And, as I said, I liked it.

I'm not sure why this appealed to me when the Guardians movies, which have a similar feel, are so much not my cup of tea. The Suicide Squad is very violent ... it comes by its R-rating honestly. There's barely any sex, which is usually where the R-ratings come from, so you can imagine how violent it is. The violence is off the charts, but very cartoonish, so while I can understand why some people would be turned off, I thought it was funny (and, at times, inventive). It drags a bit in the middle, and while I never felt like barfing, the attempts at touching moments, few as they were, did little for me. The anti-USA sentiment was a bit shallow and tossed off ... on the other hand, it's always nice to see the USA as the Evil Empire.

Some of the cast were perfect, and (props to Gunn) they had some fun dialogue to work with. You might not think of it, but the cast includes two Oscar winners and two nominees. Singling out particular members of the cast isn't really fair, but I enjoyed the main characters, played by Margot Robbie, Idris Elba, John Cena, and Daniela Melchior.

It was a fun afternoon movie, at least for me. I'm back on Gunn's side for at least one more film.

what i watched

Film Fatales #118: Beau Travail (Claire Denis, 1999). My third Claire Denis film, after 35 Shots of Rum and White Material, and the third I've found quite impressive. Once again, she isn't worried about clarifying events. It's a character study, where the heat of Djibouti is a character of its own. It's said she drew on Melville's Billy Budd, and I can see that ... if nothing else, it's clear which character in Beau Travail is the Billy Budd stand-in. I was reminded a bit of Full Metal Jacket, in the way the men in the French Foreign Legion do mind-numbing physical tasks to prepare them for a war. One difference between the two films (besides the part where Beau Travail is far superior) is that Denis never takes us to the actual war, the way Kubrick does in the second half of his film. The absence of any actual fighting makes the endless preparations of the Legionnaires almost abstract. Because Denis doesn't force a narrative down our throats, the eventual fate of the main characters seems a bit abrupt. But overall, the film carries a power that belies the seemingly calm surface. The buried homoerotic subtext in itself is overwhelming at times. #115 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time, and #93 on the recently released TSPDT poll of its users.

Geezer Cinema: Awake (Mark Raso, 2021). Never call a movie "Awake" unless you are sure you will give audiences plenty to keep them from getting sleepy. Awake has an intriguing, if silly, premise: everyone on Earth is unable to fall asleep (I've already forgotten the "explanation" for this), except for a couple of people, one of which is a young girl played by Ariana Greenblatt, who was young Gamora in Avengers: Infinity War. This is not a big-name cast. Gina Rodriguez stars, Jennifer Jason Leigh is only in a couple of scenes and she is mostly wasted, and there are a handful of "that guys" like Barry Pepper, Gil Bellows, and Shamier Anderson. Oh, and Frances Fisher, whose part is barely larger than Leigh's. It's not much of a movie. In fairness, I didn't fall asleep while watching it. But then, I had some caffeine before it started.

[Letterboxd lists for Film Fatales and Geezer Cinema]

geezer cinema: no sudden move (steven soderbergh, 2021)

We're up to 104 films in our weekly Geezer Cinema, going back to July of 2019, and Steven Soderbergh becomes the first director to get four movies on the list. (Earlier choices were Contagion, Logan Lucky, and Haywire.)

I've seen nine of his movies, now, and I guess you could say I like him. Toss in his TV series, The Knick, and count me impressed, even if I've never found any of his pictures superb. (In my recently-updated ranking of directors, he finished #52.)

I know more informed people than I who can recognize a Soderbergh film as soon as they start watching. I can't say the same, but only because I sometimes forget to pay attention to directorial style. I will say that I am rarely lost in a Soderbergh movie ... OK, the plot of No Sudden Move is complicated to say the least, but Soderbergh always makes sure you know where people are in a scene, a talent that is more rare than it should be. I've assumed that actors like him, because he always seems to have these amazing casts, the kind you don't get if you have a bad rep. No Sudden Move's cast includes Don Cheadle, Benicio del Toro, David Harbour, Ray Liotta, Jon Hamm, Brendan Fraser, Kieran Culkin, Noah Jupe, Julia Fox, Frankie Shaw, Bill Duke, even an uncredited Matt Damon. It must be said that there is an extreme male tilt to that list. (He did direct Julia Roberts in her Oscar-winning role, and managed to get a decent performance out of Gina Carano, a former mixed-martial artist in her first leading role.)

I watched a few interviews with the cast of No Sudden Move, and I was taken with how often they would mention the experience of having a director right there as you acted. (Soderbergh famously does his own camerawork and editing, using pseudonyms.) They all felt this helped them ... that's not something I would have thought of on my own.

There isn't anything new about No Sudden Move, but what's there is well-done. It's easy to recommend to anyone who likes noirish movies with great casts.

Finally, I have to mention this. I'm going to quote Jeffrey Wells, since he raises this issue while adding something I also found odd: few to no critics even mentioned this (link also includes images):

Soderbergh apparently used some kind of spherical wide-angled lens that occasionally delivers what looks like a 2.2:1 aspect ratio, and which compresses images on the sides.

In other words, Soderbergh doesn’t seem to be delivering a standard 2.39:1 (or 2.4:1) Scope aspect ratio but something closer to the slightly distorted cinematography seen in portions of Around The World in 80 Days — i.e., portions that used a spherical bug-eye lens.

The No Sudden Move visuals also struck me as similar to the distinctive framings that were seen in Alfonso Gomez-Rejon‘s The Current War, which was shot by Chung Chung-hoon. Lots of headroom and elbow room. Objects squeezed on the sides.

And yet very few critics have even mentioned this curious (or certainly noteworthy) visual approach.

I noticed this. I didn't think it mattered, and I wouldn't avoid the film just because some of it looks slightly off. I don't know why Soderbergh did it.