geezer cinema: revisiting contagion (steven soderberg, 2011)

Every week since my wife retired, we have gone to the movies for what we call "Geezer Cinema". The movies aren't necessarily for geezers, but we are geezers, and we've found that if you go to a theater for the Tuesday at 1:10 PM showing of a movie, the few other people in the audience are geezers, as well. We have now seen 33 movies in this adventure:

Letterboxd Geezer Cinema List

Times are changing every day right now. Where we live, a "shelter at home" order has been passed ... we aren't supposed to go out except for emergencies. Movies don't qualify, and in fact, theaters have closed, anyway. So we can't go to the movies, but we wanted to continue the Geezer Cinema tradition, even though one reason we thought it up in the first place was so we'd get out of the house.

It was my wife's turn to pick, and she chose a movie a lot of people are watching right now: Contagion. Because we were at home, the movie wasn't new ... hey, you do what you can. It does mean I finish the rest of this post fairly easily, because I wrote about it back in 2012. Having watched it again, I don't think I'd change anything, so here it was/is, via the magic of cut-and-paste:

Contagion (Steven Soderbergh, 2011). An odd movie, mostly because it’s not very odd at all. It’s a thriller about a fast-spreading virus, but the action is presented in a matter-of-fact manner that quiets the thrills. It seems ripe for philosophical interludes (I am, after all, the person whose favorite book is The Plague by Albert Camus), but it sidesteps them. It’s got an all-star cast, with three Best Actress Oscar winners and a bunch of guys who have won or been nominated for Oscars of their own, yet it treats them all as actors first and movie stars second. The low-key nature of the film is nice, considering how many similar films crank up the cheap emotion and show lots of things blowing up. And it’s not overlong, and it’s never boring. But neither is it ever great.

geezer cinema/film fatales #79: emma. (autumn de wilde, 2020)

Sometimes a movie can be wonderful even if it is far from perfect. For me, the key is often acting. A great performance makes up for a lot, and a great ensemble is even better.

Emma. is a good movie ... I don't mean to suggest otherwise. Director Autumn de Wilde, with her first feature, and screenwriter Eleanor Catton (also her feature debut), make the old recognizable. They take great care to make their movie seem real to the time of Jane Austen's novel, but while doing that, they also make us feel as if Emma and her friends and family are people we know right now. It's not just a period piece, no matter how well they recreate the period.

But in the end, it's the acting that raises Emma. above the norm. I often say, if there are many good performances in a film, the director must get at least some of the credit, and so de Wilde deserves mention here, as well. I only recognized a few of the actors ... Gemma Whelan was Yara Greyjoy in Game of Thrones, and Bill Nighy ... well, I would say he can make anything good, but even he couldn't rescue the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. Still, I love me some Bill Nighy.

I save my most fervent praise for two of the actresses, again unknown to me. Mia Goth (what a marvelous name for an actor) is quite winning as Emma's best friend Harriet. Goth has a way of smiling that jumps off the screen; you feel her happiness. Goth also has an advantage, in that Harriet is largely likable from beginning to end, so once we become attached to her smile, she has us in her grasp.

Even more impressive is Anya Taylor-Joy as the title character. She has remarkable eyes ... if Goth's smile is entrancing, Taylor-Joy's eyes take over the screen. More importantly, Emma is a complicated character, and between de Wilde, Catton, Austen, and Taylor-Joy, we see all of Emma's sides. She is not particularly lovable. She screws up and doesn't always seem to notice. It would be fairly easy to make Emma into something of a villain. But at the same time, Taylor-Joy makes us root for Emma. So when Emma gets her comeuppance, it is satisfying. But when she gets the true love happy ending, we're glad for her nonetheless. Emma isn't one thing or another, she's all things.

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

(And here is a letterboxd list of Geezer Cinema movies.)

geezer cinema: the invisible man (leigh whannell, 2020)

The Invisible Man starts with an escape. We know nothing of the situation, except that a woman, Cecilia (Elisabeth Moss), is terrified, and she is sneaking out of her house. She succeeds, and we gradually learn the story of her life with an abusive husband. By focusing on her escape, Leigh Whannell puts us on Cecilia's side from the beginning. When her husband is found dead of a suicide, it seems like a happy ending, although Cecilia is still paranoid, not wanting to go outside. At this point, we are rooting for Cecilia to move on with her life.

All of the subsequent plot twists grow out of this. We feel empathy for Cecilia, but she starts noticing things that don't make sense, and for a moment we might question Cecilia's grasp of reality. She concludes that her husband is somehow still alive, and that he has figured out a way to be invisible.

Whannell doesn't keep us in suspense ... we "see" the evidence of the invisible man's presence, as does Cecilia. Our empathy returns, twofold, for Cecilia has to deal not only with her apparently living, invisible husband, but with a world that thinks she is deluded.

Whannell relies heavily on Moss. His plot has more than a few holes that are best ignored until after the movie, but meanwhile, Moss is up to everything asked of her. Over the course of the movie she has to portray a variety of emotions, sometimes hiding her true emotions behind a mask. It's an award-worthy performance that will likely be forgotten by next year's Oscars.

Whannell reportedly brought the movie in for only $7 million. The "Invisible" effects are good ... you don't notice how it is done. The sound carries a lot of impact ... you hear every punch (granted, I was watching in a Dolby Cinema theater, where loud sounds can make your seat rumble). It's not clear who to credit for the sound ... the IMDB lists 20 people under "Sound Department" ... my best guess is Chris Terhune and P.K. Hooker, who are credited as "sound designers".

The Invisible Man provides enough thrills to satisfy, and Moss in particular makes it worth watching. I wouldn't go any further than that, though ... it's no Babadook.

geezer cinema/film fatales #76: portrait of a lady on fire (céline sciamma, 2019)

Portrait of a Lady on Fire is exquisite in the way that love is in real life. It hurts, then it feels so good. Céline Sciamma takes her time telling her story, which perfectly matches the gradual process by which the two main characters fall in love. The film smolders, and, as Mick LaSalle wrote, "The last time I wanted two people to kiss this much, I was one of the people."

Comparisons have been drawn between this film and Blue Is the Warmest Color, and it's understandable, although much of the discussion seems to revolve around picking one or the other as "better". Sciamma addressed this point:

We can absolutely love both films. We do not live up to the exciting nature of this moment if we start reducing everything to questions of ‘good or not good; moral or immoral; voyeur or not voyeur,’ that’s not the point. The key is to understand what animates such images, and what they seek to impart.

The films do make for instructive examples of the differences between the male and female gaze. And "gaze" is the proper term for Portrait of a Lady on Fire, for much of the relationship between the two women is shown in how they look at each other. Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel as a painter and her reluctant subject are perfectly matched, and both deliver perfect performances. Sciamma won Best Screenplay at Cannes, but the film relies on Merlant and Haenel. Backed by Sciamma's direction, the two actors draw us into their story. Luàna Bajrami is also excellent in a lesser but important role.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire looks great, as well, with cinematographer Claire Mathon making the most of what in many cases are scenes lit by candlelight.

Some of the best moments are almost wordless, including a remarkable final shot that stays with you long after the movie is over. And Sciamma uses music sparingly, which adds to the impact when it does occur, most notably in this, which I think is the best scene among so many great ones in the movie:

They are singing "non possunt fugere", Latin for "They cannot escape".

Simply put, Portrait of a Lady on Fire is an excellent movie in every way. #193 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time.

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

geezer cinema/film fatales #75: the photograph (stella meghie, 2020)

The Photograph is a movie about African-Americans, starring African-Americans, written and directed by an African-American, that is about love and romance. If not revolutionary, it at the least stands out among romances with white characters. The film is a bit generic, but adding black characters makes a big difference ... we're seeing something we don't often get at the movies.

The Photograph benefits greatly from its cast. LaKeith Stanfield is building quite the resume, and he is predictably fine here. Issa Rae is known for the HBO comedy Insecure, so The Photograph represents something different for her. She lights up the screen ... even with this cast, she is the best thing about the movie. Lil Rel Howery, Rob Morgan, Chanté Adams, and more ... everyone is at the top of their game.

Stella Meghie tells the story using lots of flashbacks. This again works primarily because of the casting ... when we see characters at two different times in their lives, the actors for each time frame are believably the same person.

The Photograph is low-key, and if you are in the right mood, low-key is probably for the best. But I found the film's pleasures to be mild. See it for the acting, see it for the still-unique concept of a black romance film, but for me, The Photograph rarely got beyond "I'm glad I've watched this". Sure be nice if Issa Rae's star got bigger, though.

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

geezer cinema: what she said: the art of pauline kael (rob garver, 2018)

This may be the ultimate "Steven's Pick" movie. Last summer, I made a small donation to the folks making this movie, which meant my name showed up in the credits, a first. Kael, of course, has been an obsession of mine for close to 50 years. A quote from her sits atop every page of this blog. Rob Garver has been working on this film for several years ... IMDB lists it as a 2018 movie, and that's when it first appeared at festivals. Prior to this, Garver was a director of shorts.

Garver tries to squeeze Kael's entire life into 98 minutes, an effort that is doomed from the start, although he does a pretty good job nonetheless. He hits the high points ... born on a chicken farm in Petaluma, California, attended Cal and settled in at Berkeley, had a daughter, worked at menial jobs because she couldn't make a living as a film critic, ran a theater, did reviews on radio, published a compilation of her work, got noticed, and went to New York.

You don't learn a lot about Pauline Kael the person ... if you do, it's more like my borrowed quote, "I'm frequently asked why I don't write my memoirs. I think I have." Garver walks us through her most famous reviews, and those reviews supply much of the film's narrative. Limelight, Shoeshine, The Sound of Music, Bonnie and Clyde, Citizen Kane, Last Tango in Paris, Nashville, Shoah. Garver isn't a hagiographer ... he mentions some of her low spots in passing. But What She Said is nonetheless a love letter (appropriate that when it finally came to Berkeley, it was Valentine's Day). The very fact of its existence is remarkable: a documentary about a movie critic who has been dead for almost 20 years, who wrote her last review almost 30 years ago.

The movie is probably best appreciated by those of us who have memorized everything she ever wrote. Garver uses clips of Kael, interviews with people who knew her and/or were influenced by her, and voice overs of some famous passages, read by Sarah Jessica Parker. (Parker does fine ... she doesn't try to imitate the sound of Kael, she let's the words do the work, and while at first it was a bit odd hearing Parker, eventually I quit noticing.)

What She Said should be seen by all Kael aficionados. I'm not sure it will connect with others, though.

Here is a brief clip that combines Parker reading, Kael speaking, and Quentin Tarantino being Quentin Tarantino:

And the trailer:


Here are the Oscar nominated films I have seen, with the major categories listed. The movies in bold are the ones I would choose for the award, based on who/what was nominated.

Best Picture:

Best Actor:

Best Actress:

  • Saoirse Ronan (Little Women)
  • Scarlett Johansson (Marriage Story)

Best Supporting Actor:

  • Al Pacino (The Irishman)
  • Anthony Hopkins (The Two Popes)
  • Joe Pesci (The Irishman)

Best Supporting Actress:

  • Florence Pugh (Little Women)
  • Laura Dern (Marriage Story)

Best Director:

  • Bong Joon Ho (Parasite)
  • Martin Scorsese (The Irishman)
  • Sam Mendes (1917)

Best Original Screenplay:

  • Sam MendesKrysty Wilson-Cairns (1917)
  • Rian Johnson (Knives Out)
  • Noah Baumbach (Marriage Story)
  • Bong Joon Ho, Jin Won Han (Parasite)
Best Adapted Screenplay:
  • Greta Gerwig (Little Women)
  • Steven Zaillian (The Irishman)
  • Anthony McCarten (The Two Popes)
Best Documentary Feature:
Best International Feature:
  • Honeyland
  • Pain and Glory
  • Parasite

geezer cinema/film fatales #73: the rhythm section (reed morano, 2010)

Wow, people really hate this movie. It set some kind of record for worst opening weekend box office for a film playing in 3000+ theaters. The critical consensus at Rotten Tomatoes is 30% approval. Its Metacritic rating is 44/100.

Well, I realize it's damning with faint praise, but The Rhythm Section doesn't suck. Blake Lively is excellent (and in fairness, many of the critics who hated the film praised her performance). There's nothing special going on ... it's not the kind of movie you are dying to see, nor is it the kind of movie you'll want to push on your friends. But it's OK, certainly worth a look on cable on a Saturday afternoon.

Some people were disappointed, which accounts for at least part of the problem. If you had no positive thoughts beforehand, you wouldn't care if it stunk. But people like Blake Lively, and Reed Morano, who began as a cinematographer and who has an Emmy for her work directing The Handmaid's Tale, has a mild buzz about her. Yet The Rhythm Section doesn't quite succeed ... it's got too much character development to work as an action picture, but that development isn't all that interesting. There are a couple of good action scenes, both involving Lively, one fighting Jude Law and one with her driving in a car chase. It falls far short of greatness ... honestly, it falls short of goodness. But there are worse movies in the world, and I remain puzzled why The Rhythm Section is taking such abuse.

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

geezer cinema: pain and glory (pedro almodóvar, 2019)

Some artists make such a strong impression on me that I feel like I've seen more of their work than I actually have. Take director Pedro Almodóvar. Prior to Pain and Glory, I had seen three of his movies and liked them all. If you had asked me off the top of my head, I would have said I've seen a lot of his films, because I remember the ones I like. But I haven't seen that many. Or Antonio Banderas ... I've seen half a dozen of his films, but none where he was the star. I have seen a few more Penélope Cruz movies, and this is the third one I have seen that was directed by Almodóvar. Point is, they've all done work I've liked, yet I haven't really dug deep with any of them.

I loved Pain and Glory. I hesitate to say it's the best work of any of the three people I have mentioned, because I don't feel I know enough of their work. But Banderas certainly deserves his Best Actor Oscar nomination. He does a lot with a little here ... he is mostly subdued, but he communicates with the audience with his eyes, with the way he carries himself. Penélope Cruz is not a lead character here ... one happy result of Almodóvar using flashbacks is that Cruz plays Antonio's mother. I have found over the years that she is much better in Spanish movies than in English films. Meanwhile, Almodóvar's work here seems less outrageous than I remember from him. But he is 70 years old, and if Pain and Glory is autumnal, well, Almodóvar has earned it.

Pain and Glory is also nominated for the Best International Feature Oscar, where it is up against the best movie of 2019, Parasite.

Ultimately, I don't know that Pain and Glory quite lives up to the performance of Banderas. But he is so good, and the film is so quietly impressive, that the result is moving.

geezer cinema: underwater (william eubank, 2020)

My first "2020" film, which is ironic since it was shot in 2017. In 2020, it became the final film released under the "20th Century Fox" name (a week after its release, Disney changed the name to 20th Century Studios).

It is easy to reduce Underwater to something recognizable, and you won't even have to lie: it's Alien, but underwater, and with Kristen Stewart in place of Sigourney Weaver. Naturally, the comparison doesn't reflect well on Underwater, but if you get past that, you'll find an economical thriller that wastes no time getting to the good stuff. You don't want to show up late ... the action begins almost immediately. If you are a fan of character development, you'll find Underwater underwhelming. Me, I usually find character development in this kind of movie to be a waste of time, so I appreciated the move directly into action. I didn't come to the theater to find out the dark secret past of Kristen Stewart's character ... I came to see her and her mates fighting against a monster.

The monster is cool enough, although to be fair I'm surprised they spent $80 million on this ... it's better looking than a Syfy made-for-TV special, but it's no Alien (or The Abyss, for that matter). Kristen Stewart is her usual reliable self, and she and co-star Jessica Henwick even give a shout out to Ripley when they start running around in their panties.

Underwater is cheesy but not that cheesy, and it takes care of business in 95 minutes. Face it, you don't need my advice: you already know whether you want to see it.