geezer cinema: the book of eli (the hughes brothers, 2010)

This is the fifth movie I've seen from The Hughes Brothers, but for some reason it's the first one I've written about. Which is too bad, because The Book of Eli is at or near the bottom of the list when it comes to their movies. Menace II Society was a touchstone, with a terrifying performance by Larenz Tate. Dead Presidents (also with Tate) surprised me ... I thought it was even better than Menace. From Menace II Society in 1993 to From Hell in 2001, the brothers (who are twins) directed four movies together. For reasons not completely clear, they have only directed one movie together in the last 20 years, The Book of Eli. I wish I could say it was a return to form.

The brothers (and casting director Mindy Marin) put together a solid cast, with a couple of reliable leads in Denzel Washington and Gary Oldman, strong support from Mila Kunis in the female lead, and an intriguing list of players in smaller parts: Ray "Titus Pullo" Stevenson, Jennifer Beals, Frances de la Tour and Michael Gambon as an old couple that haven't lost their fire, even Tom Waits and an uncredited Malcolm McDowell. None of them are wasted, but it's really Denzel's show, with Oldman doing a good job of underplaying the villain, something he doesn't always do.

The story, a post-apocalyptic tale that goes mostly unexplained, reminded me of a lot of other movies, most of them better than The Book of Eli. There are a few twists near the end that I won't spoil (at least one of which, I didn't get until I read about the movie afterwards). The fight sequences are well done, with Denzel doing his own martial arts stunts. If you ended up spending two hours watching this movie, you wouldn't hate yourself afterwards. But you might wonder why you bothered. For me, there wasn't much to inspire. If you want to be surprised by a movie you might not know, check out Dead Presidents.


geezer cinema: without remorse (stefano sollima, 2021)

I suppose I should use the official title, Tom Clancy's Without Remorse, but I'm feeling ornery. This was a real disappointment, and that shouldn't be the case. I had no expectations going in, had glanced at the negative reviews, and honestly, outside of The Hunt for Red October, I don't think I've seen any Clancy-related movies because he doesn't interest me. But I got my hopes up nonetheless, because I've been a fan of Michael B. Jordan since The Wire, and I liked all of Jordan's movies I'd seen up to this point.

Well, Jordan doesn't stink in Without Remorse, and I hope for his sake the film is popular and turns into a franchise for him. But it's a waste to take one of the most charismatic actors we have and give him a part that any lunk could have played. Jordan isn't asked to do anything but act badass in action scenes that might have impressed back in the 80s, when people like Arnold and Stallone were cranking out a couple of these a year. But in an age of Fury Road and the Raid movies, something as mundane as this no longer gets it. We've seen a handful of fairly recent action flicks during the Geezer Cinema era, and with few exceptions they all run together in a forgettable way. Letterboxd tags 24 of the 91-and-counting Geezer Movies as fitting into the Action genre, and half of them have been mediocre at best. There have been some pleasant surprises that keep me coming back for more (Underwater and The Old Guard, two 2020 movies starring Kristen Stewart and Charlize Theron respectively, were quite enjoyable movies about which I had no higher expectations going in than I did for Without Remorse). Point being that I am perfectly ready to enjoy a dumb action movie nowadays ... not everything is going to be Fury Road, I know that.

But Without Remorse isn't good or bad enough to win me over. It ticks off a lot of the plot points you know are coming before they happen. I'm often lost in the plots of these international "thrillers", and even I was calling things in advance. (We meet Jordan's wife in an early scene ... I immediately say, "She's going to die". And when it turns out she's pregnant, well that seals things. Yeah, that's a spoiler ... like I say, I'm feeling ornery.) In fairness, not everyone I thought was a bad guy turned out to be bad, but even that's a standard trick, isn't it?

A movie like this, that buries its star, relies on its action scenes, and Sollima doesn't give us even one scene that we remember the next day. I realize I'm spoiled by now ... movies like The Raids 1 and 2 have memorable scenes pretty much non-stop. But Without Remorse never comes close. If you had told me I'd ever see a movie with Michael B. Jordan that I mostly laughed at while watching, I'd have said you were nuts. Now I know better.

(There's an inside joke for fans of the old NYPD Blue show, although it may have been unintentional. Jordan plays a man named John Kelly ... his undercover name becomes John Clark.)

[Letterboxd list of Geezer Cinema movies]


geezer cinema: the father (florian zeller, 2020)

Watching The Father, I was reminded of Sound of Metal, which I think deserves awards for using sound as an entry into the main character's experiences. In The Father, Anthony Hopkins plays an old man with growing dementia. It was a hard movie to follow, until I realized that the director was using confusion as an entry to the main character's experiences. Nothing made sense, just when you thought you understood something, it turned into something else ... just as was happening with Hopkins' character. Weird thing is, I wasn't liking the movie, even after I realized what it was up to. Not sure why what worked for me in Sound of Metal turned me off in The Father.
 
It's easy to see that I was being unfair to Florian Zeller, who had a smart method of presenting his material. In fact, The Father is one of the better screen representations of dementia. (Zeller originally wrote it as a play, and its stage origins are obvious, although they are not intrusive.) Considering this was Zeller's debut as a feature director, the results are even more impressive. I found it funny at times, but I wasn't sure if Zeller had written a comedy or not ... I found myself worried I was laughing at the "wrong parts". Ultimately, there is no question that The Father is filled with sadness, but I'm pretty sure if I watched it again, I'd laugh once more at those parts.
 
Anthony Hopkins is very deserving of his Oscar nomination. It's a role with the potential for plenty of Oscar bait, but Hopkins never falls into that trap. He covers a lot of ground, from charming to mean-spirited to simply confused, but he's always believable ... you don't get the feeling he's polishing his Oscar for his shelf at home. He's now been nominated for five Oscars since his lone win for The Silence of the Lambs, an impressive if frustrating achievement. As good as he is here, and he is the equal of the other nominees, he likely stands no chance against the equally deserving Chadwick Boseman. In fact, The Father earned six nominations, including Best Picture and Best Supporting Actress (Olivia Colman). I'd say the best of the movie's nominees is Yorgos Lamprinos for Editing ... he is the reason I was so confused, so I suppose I should be mad at him, but he pulls off the confusion.
 
Fans of acting should enjoy The Father. And fans of challenging approaches to films will appreciate what Zeller pulls off.
 

geezer cinema: concrete cowboy (ricky staub, 2020)

Concrete Cowboy is a paint-by-numbers coming of age story about a boy and his father. With one exception, there is nothing you haven't seen before, resulting in that oddity, an R-rated family movie. (The "R" comes from "language throughout, drug use and some violence", but come on.) It's that one exception that makes Concrete Cowboy a bit more than just another story: it's about a community called the Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club. Wikipedia explains:

Part of a century-long tradition of black urban cowboys and horsemanship in Philadelphia, local horsemen maintain and care for horses and teach neighborhood youth to do so. They encourage academic excellence and provide positive ways for local youth to spend their leisure time outdoors.

It's not just the presence of horses on the streets of Philadelphia that make a difference, it's the focus on black cowboys in the 21st century. It's not a story you see every day, and so even though it is presented in a fundamentally conservative way, fitting snugly into its genre, it's still intriguing. Granted, while I was watching, I was thinking mainly that I'd seen it before, but afterwards, realizing that I hadn't actually seen urban black cowboys made the movie stick in my mind.

It's the first feature for director/writer Ricky Staub, and he shows a good understanding for what makes a movie worth seeing. It is entirely possible he will make better movies than Concrete Cowboy. In the meantime, you've got Idris Elba, which makes up for a lot, Caleb McLaughlin as the son, and some nice support from Lorraine Toussaint and Method Man, among others. Concrete Cowboy is a nice enough way to spend two hours.


geezer cinema: pieces of a woman (kornél mundruczó, 2020)

Near the beginning of Pieces of a Woman, we get an extended scene that is the equal of anything in any movie from 2020. We meet a couple expecting a baby ... it's time, the woman's water breaks, they are having a home birth. A midwife arrives, a replacement for the one they have worked with ... she is tied up in another delivery. The birth takes places over the course of more than 20 minutes, all done in a single take, which had to be very hard for the actors, especially Vanessa Kirby as the mom, Martha. (They did six takes in two days.)

What follows is an unsparing examination of grief. It is powerful, and Vanessa Kirby deserves her Oscar nomination (and not just for that birthing scene). As the substitute midwife, Molly Parker delivers (pun unintended) in a small part. And many will find Ellen Burstyn's performance as the Martha's mother be powerful, as well. Here I admit to a bias ... I have a real problem with moms who are oppressively intrusive. Burstyn does fine things with the part, and the relationship between mother and daughter is a highlight of the film. So YMMV, but I hated Burstyn's character, which got in the way of my appreciation of the part.

The structure of Pieces of a Woman makes perfect sense: the intensity of the birth scene, followed by a more subtle look at how the birth affects Martha and those around her. The film properly moves through scenes where Martha suffers in silence (it's here that Kirby really shines), interspersed with moments when her emotions force their way to the surface. I can't find fault with the way Kornél Mundruczó, writer Kata Wéber, and cinematographer Benjamin Loeb present the material. Whoever made the shot selections had a quirky eye ... at times we get closeups to reveal the emotions of the characters, at other times, the screen is oddly split to you might see part of a table and part of someone's legs.

Unfair as it is to point this out, the last 90 minutes can't possibly live up to the brilliance of the first half hour. The result is a movie I admire in retrospect, a film that is nearly perfect in so many ways, but one that feels like a slight letdown. Pieces of a Woman deserves a second look down the road.


geezer cinema: mud (jeff nichols, 2012)

Apparently, I'm going to have to add Jeff Nichols to my list of favorite current directors. This is the third movie I have seen of his, and he's good (or maybe it's Michael Shannon, who is in all three). About Take Shelter, I wrote, "It’s like M. Night Shyamalan only good, it’s a horror story, it’s really about the poor state of the American economy, it’s a finely-detailed portrait of a schizophrenic." Midnight Special, another Geezer pick from my wife, convinced me that "I need to see more movies by Nichols." My wife came through again, and Mud is every bit the equal of those other two.

Mud feels authentically Southern, and indeed, Nichols is from Arkansas, where the film takes place. That authenticity is useful, because the film is steeped in is-it-a-myth storytelling. The two young boys at the center of the narrative are believable humans, but Matthew McConaughey as the titular Mud is a figure out of a story more than he's an actual person. Actually, you could say that all three characters are out of the same story: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Like Twain's novel, Mud places its coming-of-age story in a recognizable place and then sneaks in the mythology.

This is all helped by the acting, not just by McConaughey but also from Ty Sheridan and Jacob Lofland (his film debut) as the two boys. Sheridan essentially carries the movie, and he's more than capable. Francine Maisler was in charge of the casting, and she deserves a hat tip, not only for those three, but also for the cast full of actors who are too well-known to qualify as "That Guys": Reese Witherspoon, Sam Shepard, Sarah Paulson, the ever-present Michael Shannon, along with a couple of true That Guys, Joe Don Baker and my beloved Ray McKinnon.

Mud is good enough that it mostly gets away with being guy-centric. Two boys coming of age under the semi-tutelage of an older man. The women characters fall a bit too easily into the angel/whore trope, with Mud in particular driven by a woman who keeps doing him wrong. But I don't want to go too far with this ... Witherspoon is especially strong in a way that refuses to be a stereotype.

There's a shootout at the end that feels a bit out of place in this film, although Nichols has prepared us for it. Otherwise, his work is very assured.

Where do I go next for a Jeff Nichols fix? He hasn't released a feature film since 2016, although there was an animated TV series, Hank the Cowdog. That still leaves me with Shotgun Stories and Loving.


geezer cinema/film fatales #111: promising young woman (emerald fennell, 2020)

Emerald Fennell is only 35, and she's already had quite the career. As an actress, she's had parts in several movies while also catching attention on television in Call the Midwife and, as Camilla Parker Bowles, in The Crown. As an author, she has written a few children's books and one adult novel. She took over as showrunner for the second season of Killing Eve. And now she has written, directed, and co-produced her first feature film, Promising Young Woman, earning Oscar nominations for all three of those duties. She is, to coin a phrase, a promising young woman (I can't be the first person to come up with that).

Promising Young Woman takes full advantage of Carey Mulligan in the title role. The supporting cast is excellent, featuring actors who, in many cases, have moved beyond "That Guy": Alison Brie, Laverne Cox, Alfred Molina, Connie Britton. (There are plenty of That Guys, too, like Clancy Brown, Jennifer Coolidge, and Molly Shannon.) Fennell shows a sure hand with these performers, many of whom shine in small parts that are nonetheless well-defined. And since Fennell not only directed the actors but wrote their dialogue, she deserves double credit.

Promising Young Woman also feels very much of its time, and it will be interesting to check it out in ten years to see if it feels like the remnants of a time long past, or if it retains its timeliness.  It's a revenge tale, and I'll avoid spoilers and stop there, but Mulligan is ferocious while giving us a sense of what is going on inside her character. I was reminded of another revenge story that didn't share a lot with this film but which came to my mind anyway, the short, cancelled-too-soon TV series Sweet/Vicious.

Promising Young Woman makes you look forward to whatever Fennell comes up with next. #755 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century.


geezer cinema: i care a lot (j blakeson, 2020)

The IMDB categorizes I Care a Lot as a comedy crime thriller, which is accurate enough ... I laughed at times, crimes take place, there are thrilling moments. It's not even a jumble for the first hour or so. Rosamund Pike does a lot to make the film cohere. She's great as Marla Grayson, the Bad Guy, and she manages to do some very over-the-top things while keeping what passes for calm. She's fun to watch ... that's where the comedy comes in, I guess. Peter Dinklage (Roman Lunyov) is a different kind of Bad Guy, and his acting isn't quite the same as Pike's ... he lets us see the effort his character puts into appearing calm, and also lets us see when his anger gets the best of him.

J Blakeson, who also wrote I Care a Lot, goes full bore into giving us what amounts to an evil, calculating person. Some people have found anti-capitalism undertones, and even some feminist empowerment. But the movie mostly feels like Blakeson wanted to give us a good time, which is how you end up with a comedy crime thriller.

Still, at some point, Blakeson has to address the central problem of the movie: the main character is essentially despicable, and the audience will only go so far before we realize Marla isn't a hero or an anti-hero, but a Bad Guy. When you reach that point, you have no one to root for. Honestly, I like movies filled with people who can't be salvaged, but Blakeson wants to give us a reason to turn to Marla's side. He solves this problem by bringing in Lunyov, who is an even worse person than Marla. Marla doesn't suddenly become good ... in fact, it's refreshing that she never comes around, never leaves the dark side. But when the two stars share scenes together, Marla is the one we gravitate towards, rather like voting for the least bad candidate in an unsatisfying election.

The way the two antagonists go at each other keeps I Care a Lot moving until the final scene, and you'll find it enjoyable as long as you leave your moral qualms in the theater lobby. The ending, though, feels like it was tacked on by censors from the era of the Code.

I Care a Lot is as despicable as its characters, and that's not necessarily a bad thing. But I felt it was less than the sum of its parts.

[Letterboxd list of Geezer Cinema movies]


african-american directors series/geezer cinema: judas and the black messiah (shaka king, 2021)

I lived in Indiana in 1971-72, and one night we attended a showing of a film called The Murder of Fred Hampton. It couldn't have been more lo-fi, but it really grabbed the audience with its powerful agitprop. After the showing, someone from the Panthers said a few words ... I want to say it was David Hilliard, but you know how my memory is. You can watch the entire movie on YouTube:

Judas and the Black Messiah is nowhere near as raw as that documentary, but I didn't expect it to be. I was excited by the advance notices, but I worried that it was going to be more about "Judas" (William O'Neal, played by Lakeith Stanfield) than about Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya). I shouldn't have worried. Shaka King, previously unknown to me, who directed and co-wrote the film, did a superb job of integrating the story of O'Neal into the story of Hampton. The latter is never pushed to the background, and Kaluuya's dynamic performance couldn't be hidden even if they wanted to do so. But as presented, O'Neal is far more than just a snitch. He's placed in a bad position, hounded by the FBI to infiltrate and eventually betray Hampton, and Stanfield, who matches Kaluuya all the way, shows us how O'Neal found himself in such a position, how much he hated himself for it, and how the inspired rhetoric of Hampton draws O'Neal close to becoming a Believer.

There is more going on in Judas and the Black Messiah than just Kaluuya and Stanfield. For one thing, the rest of the cast isn't too shabby, either, especially Dominique Fishback and Jesse Plemons, who underplays his FBI agent so that his evil behavior only sneaks through the surface. King gives us a believable version of Chicago in the late 60s that has too many unfortunate reminders of 2021 ... things haven't changed enough, if at all. Kaluuya is a bit too old for his part, which King rescues by essentially ignoring it, but you lose part of Fred Hampton's amazing life if you don't regularly insist on noting he was only 21 when he died. But these are nitpicks. Judas and the Black Messiah is the best movie I have seen so far in 2021.


geezer cinema: run (aneesh chaganty, 2020)

Let's get the good stuff out of the way first. Run is basically a chamber piece focusing on two characters, a mother and her daughter Chloe, played by Sarah Paulson and newcomer Kiera Allen. Both are great ... Allen is especially noteworthy because she's up against an all-time veteran, and she's in her first movie. Run is a thriller that actually manages to retain its edge-of-your-seat excitement for most of the film. And it's also historic, since Allen's character is in a wheelchair, as is the actress herself in real life. Hulu makes sure to tell us that this marks the first time in a Hollywood movie in more than 70 years where the chair-bound heroine is played by a disabled actress.

This last point is dealt with in a somewhat subtle way. Chloe is tied to her chair, but it doesn't completely define who she is ... she's a real character of some depth and resourcefulness. You don't forget the wheelchair, and some of the thrills are tied to that chair, but what is more important is how inventive and strong Chloe is.

There are shout outs to plenty of movies from the past, and ... well, I'm trying to avoid spoilers here, but it's impossible to do that with 100% efficiency, so you are warned. I was reminded of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, and the movie is also in the great Gaslight tradition. Aneesh Chaganty's film belongs in the company of those movies.

And yet ... here I'll admit that I'm not sure how much of what I'm about to say matters. You've got a well-made thriller with top-notch acting ... who could ask for anything more? Well, there's a reason Run is good-not-great: the longer it runs, the stupider it gets. The word "ludicrous" comes to mind. The real achievement for Chaganty is that somehow he keeps us thrilled and entertained, even as one part of our brain is rejecting the damn thing.

The result is a movie I have no problem recommending ... if the above sounds like your cup of tea, you'll like Run. It's just so silly in the end.