geezer cinema: the nest (sean durkin, 2020)

The Nest is Sean Durkin's second feature, after Martha Marcy May Marlene. That movie came out in 2011. Nine years is a long time between movies. His earlier film had a lot to recommend it, nothing more than the acting of Elizabeth Olsen and the rest of the cast. Now, with The Nest, Durkin establishes himself as an excellent director of actors, because the leads here, Jude Law and Carrie Coon, carry the film. It's not a bad film without them, but it's very good with them, and for all their talents, Durkin deserves credit for getting their best out of them.

I don't know which of the two is better. I've been a fan of Coon since The Leftovers, and she's wonderful as a wife, Allison, whose marriage isn't all it seems. Durkin pulls off an interesting trick in The Nest, in that it plays like a horror film but isn't a horror film at all. (In a mixed review, Oliver Jones wrote, "It looks like a horror movie, swims like a horror movie, and quacks like a horror movie, but it isn’t a horror movie. So then what the hell is it?") Coon has shown that she can take any role and find its core, and she wins our sympathy for her situation. This leads to that horror-movie feel ... you wait for something to happen to her, and Durkin, who also wrote the screenplay, plays on our expectations of the genre. This makes us think of Jude Law's husband Rory as the Bad Guy, and yes, Rory has his problems and they are essentially why Allison has problems. But we wait for Rory to turn evil, and this never happens, because the horror trappings are there mainly to distract us from what is ultimately a movie about a marriage and a family.

Much of the film takes place in a huge estate that is far too large for the family of four. Its empty rooms and long hallways add to the gothic feel, once again leading us to anticipate horror. And horror underlies most scenes in The Nest, especially as the film progresses, but it isn't there to provide a base for scares, but instead to place the otherwise straightforward narrative in an unsettling context.

The ending is suitably open. I thought it implied a possible reconciliation for the family, while my wife thought Rory would never change. Nonetheless, I found it charmingly on target that when the kids make breakfast (after many scenes where Rory made it), they make sure to put Pepsi on the table.


geezer cinema: samson and delilah (cecil b. demille, 1949)

This is the twelfth film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2020-21", "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 6th annual challenge, and my second time participating (last year can be found at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20"). Week 12 is called And the Winner is Edith Head Week:

When people think costume design in film, there's one name that seems to be synonymous with the craft, that being the incomparable Edith Head. With close to 400 credits as costume designer under her belt (pun intended), Edith has shaped the look of some of film's most classic characters, and we're gonna take a look at the times that the Academy gave her the prize.

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen film for which Edith Head wins an Oscar for Best Costume Design.

I don't usually notice costumes ... well, you can't watch a movie without noticing the costumes, so better to say I don't know what makes for a Best Costume Design. I can tell you that the Oscar for Best Costume Design went to five people, only one of whom was named Edith Head (Dorothy Jeakins, Elois Jenssen, Gile Steele, Gwen Wakeling). I can also tell you that Samson and Delilah won the Oscar for Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Color. Probably most important, though, was that it was a huge box-office success.

Samson and Delilah never surprises. Once you know that Cecil B. DeMille has directed another Bible extravaganza, and that Victor Mature is Samson and Hedy Lamarr is Delilah, you pretty much know what is coming, and you are correct, it is coming. Mature shows off his beefcake, Lamarr does nothing to suggest she didn't deserve to be called "The World's Most Beautiful Woman". Her beauty is distracting ... Mature's beefcake is standard issue, he's not the World's Most of anything, but Lamarr is exquisite, and given what we know about her now (she helped invent technology that led to Bluetooth, among other things), you can pass the time imagining her watching the DeMille silliness and thinking "I wonder when Bluetooth will be in wide usage". She's actually pretty good in Samson and Delilah. Granted, her competition is Victor Mature, but there have been plenty of worse performances by stunning beauties. Neither of the stars detracts from our enjoyment ... in fact, they are key reasons why the movie is entertaining.

Plenty of others turn up: George Sanders, Angela Lansbury, a young Russ Tamblyn. And the narrative is reasonably close to the Bible's ... Samson kicks a thousand men's butts using the jawbone of an ass, Delilah seduces Samson to learn the secret of his strength, she cuts off his hair, he is blinded and forced into slavery (is it a spoiler if the plot comes from more than 2500 years ago?). And then, it's a bit like watching a movie that features an earthquake. You know it's coming, you wait for it, even when you are watching something good, part of you holds back until you get to see that earthquake. In Samson and Delilah, we wait for most of two hours just to get to the big finale where Samson destroys the temple. DeMille doesn't spare the expense ... that finale is pretty damned impressive.

So yeah, it's junk, but it's good junk. It's worth at least one watch, if not repeated viewings.


geezer cinema: the night of the hunter (charles laughton, 1955)

Internet was down most of the day, which among other things meant the movie I'd chosen for this week's Geezer Cinema was unavailable. So I fell back on an old favorite, The Night of the Hunter, which way back when was #31 on my Facebook Fifty Faves list. I'm only just now back online, so I'll cut and paste from my original comments.

The Night of the Hunter is a collaborative work; all films are, but I feel like in this case, people tend to focus on the fact that it’s the only film Charles Laughton ever directed, and thus assume the film’s idiosyncrasies are his alone. Recent research has demonstrated the importance of Davis Grubb, who wrote the novel, James Agee, who wrote the screenplay, and Stanley Cortez, the cinematographer. I won’t pretend to know exactly who did what. But I can describe the results. Visually, the movie is a cross of D.W. Griffith and the German Expressionists. These influences come from silent film, and add to the feeling that Night of the Hunter is somehow timeless. (The presence of Lillian Gish doesn’t hurt, either). It has elements of the horror film; at times, Robert Mitchum’s Harry Powell is shot so that he resembles the monster in the Karloff versions of Frankenstein. It’s noirish, but noir as told through the eyes of children. It is, at times, pretty funny, which is unexpected. And Robert Mitchum’s performance is one of cinema’s greatest.

The movie also features several set pieces that are remarkable, and in many cases, unique. The children’s long trip down the river is the most obvious example, full of interesting choices by Laughton/Agee/Cortez/whoever. The image of Shelley Winters sitting in a car at the bottom of the river, her hair flowing like it had belonged underwater all along, is unforgettable, and you’d like to congratulate Laughton (or whoever), except the novel’s author, Davis Grubb, submitted some early drawings to Laughton that include one which looks almost exactly like what we see on the screen, so send your congrats to Grubb for that one.

If you’ve never seen it, you’re in for a treat, but the best time to see it for your first time is when you are young. You’ll be scared shitless, but you’ll never forget it. I suppose some parents would think this film to be exactly the kind of thing their kids should be protected from, but those parents are wrong. The Night of the Hunter works at the same elemental level as a good fairy tale. It is certainly better and more memorable than whatever tripe Disney is selling this year.

The Night of the Hunter was a notorious flop; no one went to see it, critical response was tepid, and it was soon forgotten as an inexpensive stylized piece by Laughton, who never directed again. But its status has increased over the years. It regularly appears on best-of lists, and is one of the films honored in the National Film Registry.

(#43 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time.)


geezer cinema: scott pilgrim vs. the world (edgar wright, 2010)

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is a wildly inventive movie derived from a series of graphic novels by Bryan Lee O'Malley. There's never a dull moment, and you don't know what Edgar Wright (Hot Fuzz, Baby Driver) will come up with next. For many people, that's enough.

Michael Cera is the titular hero, who falls for Ramona (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). Ramona has baggage, in the form of seven "Evil Exes", all of whom Scott must defeat if he is to win Ramona. The exes include Chris Evans as a skateboarder, Brandon Routh as a vegan with super powers, Brie Larson as "Envy", and Jason Schwartzman as a rich record mogul. The cast also features Kieran Culkin, Anna Kendrick, Alison Pill, and Aubrey Plaza. There are characters named Stephen Stills and Knives Chau (a 17-year-old girl with a crush on Scott).

It's all a bit much, but we're definitely talking Your Mileage May Vary. Some will look at that great cast and the general lunacy, with the feel of video games and music and youth culture, and jump right in. I looked forward to it, and enjoyed it as it was playing, but I was ultimately disappointed. #429 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time, and I suppose that's not completely silly. (Actually, watching this clip, I realized I'm being way too cranky here. It's a fun movie.)

[Letterboxd list of all the Geezer Cinema movies.]


geezer cinema/film fatales #97: never rarely sometimes always (eliza hittman, 2020)

Never Rarely Sometimes Always is the 66th movie in our weekly Geezer Cinema that we came up with when both of us were retired. Back then, the idea was to get us out of the house, but that doesn't happen anymore, so we watch at home (a couple of weeks ago, we saw our 65th, which meant we'd seen more at home than at the theaters).

I realized that over the last 66 weeks, I've shown a real taste for movies about young girls. Booksmart, Little Women, Emma!, Babyteeth, and now Never Rarely Sometimes Always, all about young girls, all chosen by me for Geezer Cinema. OK, I liked these kinds of movies long before we began Geezer Cinema, but it's fun to see how our selections differ from one another ... action pictures are more often chosen by my wife, movies about young girls more often chosen by me.

This is the third feature from Eliza Hittman, who also writes her films. She made the decision to cast Sidney Flanigan as Autumn, a 17-year-old in small-town Pennsylvania who gets pregnant and goes to New York City for an abortion. It's Flanigan's debut as an actor ... she was working as a janitor when filming began. Hittman saw something, and she sure was right ... Flanigan is excellent throughout the film. Also, Talia Ryder, who plays Autumn's cousin who accompanies her to New York, does not even have a Wikipedia page as of this writing. (She is also great.) The only name in the cast that I recognized was Sharon Van Etten, who plays Autumn's mom, and even there, I know her as a musician, not an actor.

Credit to the actors, and to Hittman, because she elicits such fine performances. It's not that Flanigan and Ryder ooze confidence ... that wouldn't fit their characters. But we never worry that the young actors are going to lose the thread.

Hittman's script, and the style she uses, avoids the kind of preaching you might expect from an "abortion movie". Never Rarely Sometimes Always is only peripherally about abortion. It's about the life of a 17-year-old girl in trouble. Hittman hints at possible traumas in Autumn's life, but that's all they are, hints. The trip to New York, and the procedure, is shitty ... the effect of the abortion is rough for Autumn, this is not a pretty movie. But something in Flanigan makes us believe she will survive. And her cousin will be there with her ... the relationship between the cousins is believable, you know Autumn's cousin has her back without asking. In fact, there isn't much dialogue at all between them. It's as if they are so close they barely need to talk.

[Letterboxd list of all the Geezer Cinema movies.]


geezer cinema: rebecca (ben wheatley, 2020)

Something about Rebecca connects with people. The novel has never gone out of print. This 2020 movie is the second based on the novel ... the first, in 1940, directed by Hitchcock and starring Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine, won the Best Picture Oscar. By my count (using Wikipedia) there have been six adaptations for television, and five versions on Old-Time Radio. The novel's author, Daphne du Maurier, adapted the book as a stage play. There was an Austrian musical version, and an opera. So yeah, there's something about Rebecca.

And it's impressive that Rebecca is still part of the zeitgeist, and that an arguably secondary character, Mrs. Danvers, has become iconic. 

So it's no surprise that Netflix gives us another Rebecca. And some things work well. I'm not an expert on costuming, but I felt like the clothes were appropriate for the characters, including the dress Mrs. Danvers uses in her attempt to destroy Mrs. de Winter. Kristin Scott Thomas dominates the film once she makes an appearance, in a good way ... I may have referred to Mrs. Danvers as arguably secondary, but Scott Thomas is having none of that. Director Ben Wheatley seems most comfortable with the character of Mrs. Danvers ... without Danvers/Scott Thomas, this Rebecca would be a bit too boring.

I initially thought Armie Hammer was the most boring part of the movie, but in retrospect, I think that's unfair. Maxim de Winter is boring in this movie. Lily James is fine, although the transition in her character from unassuming to a woman who takes charge isn't as marked as it might be ... James never seems unassuming.

It's been awhile since I saw Hitchcock's version. My memory is that I liked it, but the 2020 edition shouldn't really need to worry about being compared to an 80-year-old movie. What I found myself comparing it to was Guillermo del Toro's 2015 film Crimson Peak, and Rebecca falls short in that comparison. Rebecca has not gotten very good reviews, which may keep some people away. I'd say if it sounds appealing to you, go for it ... it's not that bad. But "not that bad" isn't a very high standard.


geezer cinema: the trial of the chicago 7 (aaron sorkin, 2020)

This is a trivia note that amazes me: The Trial of the Chicago 7 is the 13th movie I've seen with Joseph Gordon-Levitt (A River Runs Through It, The Lookout, The Brothers Bloom, (500) Days of Summer, Inception, Premium Rush, Looper, Lincoln, The Interview, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Knives Out, Project Power, The Trial of the Chicago 7).

The Trial of the Chicago 7 is simultaneously excellent and disappointing. Aaron Sorkin's magic touch with dialogue turns up here, which is always a good thing. He knows how to construct a courtroom drama. Some of the casting is inspired (Sacha Baron Cohen as Abbie Hoffman). It's an important story, and it has relevance today.

Some of the best writing I've seen about the film comes from Rennie Davis, one of the 7, on his Facebook page. He wrote enough that it took three posts to get it all out.

He begins by thanking the creators. "Any support we can give to today’s generation standing up to self-serving government authority is my reason for promoting this film." But he thinks that other than Hoffman, Sorkin doesn't really get the characters right. "I encourage all my FB friends to see the movie for its remarkable impact, but I can still wish the producers had realized the best movie possible could only be made by conveying the story just as it happened. Creating fictional characters that never existed to create a drama that moves apart from the actual event will always fall short of the real humor, inspiration and courage of the Chicago 8 defendants." And he adds:

Understanding that the Sorkin film was never intended to be a replica of the actual trial is a good way to watch the Trial of the Chicago 7. That way you feel no need to knit pick its inaccuracies. Netflix told me I should think of the movie as a painting rather than a picture. Okay. That's another way to see it.
 
I write these three posts so my FB friends can remember what actually happened in Chicago and that putting government on trial is needed again today.
Sorkin foregrounds some characters at the expense of others. My wife pointed out that Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin were the ones most of us knew at the time, along with Bobby Seale. But even if that is true, all of the defendants were important. John Froines and Lee Wiener were barely in the film. Tom Hayden was presented as the one who contested the ideas of the others, to the extent that he comes across in a negative way compared to them. He rises to the occasion in the end, but it's puzzling why he was shown this way in the first place.
 
As the film ends, we get an update on what happened to the real people in the trial. Following that, we learn about the eventual future lives of the people. We read about Jerry Rubin, Abbie Hoffman, and Tom Hayden. But the others apparently weren't important enough for even that little part of their story.
 
So yes, The Trial of the Chicago 7 is gripping, and the overall presentation is close enough to make the events matter to those who weren't alive, while allowing older viewers a nostalgic look at their past. It's not a replica. I was engrossed from beginning to end, but yeah, I could have used a bit more replica.
 


geezer cinema: midnight special (jeff nichols, 2016)

I've seen one other Jeff Nichols film, Take Shelter, which also stars Michael Shannon (not exactly an unusual occurrence ... I believe Shannon has appeared in all of Nichols' features so far). I said of that film that it was "like M. Night Shyamalan only good". More to the point, I added, "Everything improved once I gave myself over to Nichols’ vision, rather than trying to categorize the film from my own preconceptions."

Nichols wastes no time getting started with Midnight Special. It feels like we've entered in the middle of the story, and eventually we realize that is exactly what has happened. Nichols assumes his audience will figure things out on their own. It's not that he is purposely obscure, he just doesn't over-explain anything. Midnight Special has the feel of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but where Spielberg piles on the feel-goodness (not a complaint in that case, I love Close Encounters), Nichols shows a family broken to an extent by the special powers of their kid. The aliens in Close Encounters are rarely if ever scary, but the underlying mysterious nature of the plot of Midnight Special means the aliens (or whatever they are) are, at the least, ominous. Nichols has given us an unsettling film, but one that feels satisfying in the end.

Shannon plays a variation on his usual here, and he's as good as ever. I'm always glad to see Kirsten Dunst, and I can't be the only person who thought of Dunst in Fargo, saying "It's just a flying saucer, Ed." Jaeden Martell is suitably awkward as the kid with the powers, and Adam Driver plays against type (the glasses he wears help). Toss in Joel Edgerton, and "That Guy" Bill Camp, and you have a fine ensemble.

Midnight Special is just as good as Take Shelter. I need to see more movies by Nichols.


geezer cinema/film fatales #95: dick johnson is dead (kirsten johnson, 2020)

Cameraperson consisted of documentary cinematographer Kirsten Johnson putting together 25 years of leftover footage to create what she called "her memoir". Her innovative sense of what might make a good movie hasn't left her. Dick Johnson Is Dead is a movie about her aging father Richard, who is gradually falling into dementia. She suggests to her dad that they make a movie filled with scenes of him dying in various silly/cinematic ways, and he thinks it's a fine idea. At this early point, he seems fully capable of agreeing to the project.

We see an air conditioner fall on his head. We see him fall down stairs. We see him get stabbed in the neck, as blood spurts onto the street. In each case, we also see how things are done, with a crew and, especially, stunt men on hand. It's hard to explain why this seems so amazing ... it sounds like she's exploiting her father, but he's in on the joke and having a great time. When he finally gets too sick to really offer consent, she quits the fake deaths.

The relationship between father and daughter is both moving and funny, as is the movie as a whole. Johnson the daughter also concocts scenes of her dad rising up to heaven, and even gives us a fake funeral, which is so well done that one of Dick's great friends breaks up in tears as he gives a eulogy. Like Tom Sawyer, Dick gets to watch his own funeral, finally making a triumphant appearance to a standing ovation.

Kirsten Johnson was working as a cinematographer back in 2001, but didn't direct her first theatrical feature until Cameraperson in 2016. With that film, and now Dick Johnson Is Dead, Johnson has shown the ability to put remarkable, idiosyncratic ideas on the screen. Her recent movies are so interesting, you can't help but wonder what she might have come up with in those years she worked solely behind the camera. I found myself thinking about all of the people behind the scenes in movies ... how many of them might be holding onto something as unique as Johnson's films?

(Letterboxd list of our Geezer Cinema movies.)

(Letterboxd list of Film Fatales movies.)


geezer cinema: haywire (steven soderbergh, 2011)

Steven Soderbergh seems to be a Geezer mainstay lately ... this is his third movie to be featured in Geezer Cinema, after Contagion and Logan Lucky (all picked by my wife, which is interesting because she doesn't usually pick a movie based on the director). It's the first one starring Gina Carano, and that makes a big difference, because Haywire is as entertaining as those other movies, and Carano is a big reason why that is true.

Soderbergh interests me because he combines two things I find to be rare: he knows what he is doing, and he can please an audience. Some great filmmakers out there know what they are doing, and how to get their vision on the screen, but I don't usually like their movies. And there are crowd-pleasing directors who are workmanlike at best. Soderbergh can do the art film thing as well as anyone, but he's never been afraid of genre pieces, and you would never say he was workmanlike. So films like Logan Lucky and Haywire work on many levels. Haywire admittedly isn't trying for profundity, but you appreciate pretty much everything he does here.

I often write about my pet peeve with modern action films, that they don't bother orienting the viewing. Soderbergh doesn't make that mistake ... all the action scenes are clear (the plot is not so clear, but really, does it matter?). He also plays to the value in his star ... there isn't much gun play, not a lot of car chases, just Carano kicking a lot of ass. Her background (she was once called "the face of women's mixed-martial arts") makes her fight scenes a lot more believable than when, say, little Sarah Michelle Gellar as Buffy steps aside and lets her stunt person do the fighting. Her co-stars (of which more in a minute) all testify to her ability to kick their asses in real life. I haven't seen her in anything else, but she has worked steadily since Haywire. Reading some of her fans, it would appear that some of her later directors didn't understand her appeal ... there's no reason to give her a gun, that's a waste, like giving Jackie Chan a magic tuxedo. Carano is also easy on the eyes, and her acting is good enough (apparently some of her dialogue was dubbed by Laura San Giacomo).

Another plus when Steven Soderbergh is involved is that actors seem to climb over themselves to be in his movies. Despite Haywire being a genre piece with a budget of only $23 million, the cast is amazing: Channing Tatum, Michael Douglas, Antonio Banderas, Ewan McGregor, Michael Fassbender, Bill Paxton. A good portion of those stars get their asses kicked by Carano in the movie.

You go into Haywire expecting an OK trifle, and yeah, it is a trifle, but it's more than OK, and a welcome surprise.

(Letterboxd list of our Geezer Cinema movies.)