The idea of Geezer Cinema is that my wife and I would enjoy our retirement by going to the movies on Tuesday afternoons. This was great until the virus moved everyone indoors. Our first in-home Geezer Cinema was Contagion, for obvious reasons. After that, while we were stuck at home, we still managed to watch recent films, three from 2019 and one from 2020.
Well, those days are gone. This week, I chose a movie from 1945.
Leave Her to Heaven has several interesting facets. While it is nominally a noir, the movie is in ripe Technicolor that looks great in the new Criterion edition. The movie is simply beautiful, with cinematographer Leon Shamroy winning the film's only Oscar. (There were four total nominations, including Gene Tierney for Best Actress.) There are quite a few scenes that seem to walk close to the edge of 1945 censorship. This is a case where you are best left unspoiled, so I won't say more, but Tierney's femme fatale, Ellen, goes to some remarkable extremes in her attempt to get what she wants.
It has the feel of a Douglas Sirk movie, and Stahl is known as a precursor of the kinds of movies Sirk specialized in. Tierney lost the Oscar to Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce, and it's an apt comparison. Mildred is more vibrantly awful than Ellen, Crawford is more locked into her role than Tierney, and while it is no shame to be not as good as Mildred Pierce, perhaps the comparison is why I thought a little less of Leave Her to Heaven than some critics. Tierney has been praised, but I found her lacking, although the fact that Ellen does a good job of disguising her emotions may mean Tierney understood her character only too well. Cornel Wilde was OK, but he's not the most dynamic performer in any event.
Scorsese loves Leave Her to Heaven, and there is no denying the shocking impact of its best scenes. But I think it's less than a masterpiece.
A couple of caveats about this clip. For one, it's got a big spoiler. For another, the quality isn't the best ... it doesn't show off the brilliance of Shamroy's work. Nonetheless, here it is:
It's a Clint Eastwood movie. I'm tempted to stop there ... I feel like Clint-as-director is consistent, if rarely great (I think Mystic River comes closest to greatness). But I don't want to get carried away ... I liked his Iwo Jima movies more than most people, and I have a soft spot in my heart for Bronco Billy, but some of his earlier westerns like The Outlaw Josey Wales and Pale Rider aren't all that. Plus, movies like Absolute Power stink. Mostly, I call him consistent because he has a what-you-see-is-what-you-get feel, because his movies are always straightforward (just as we are told his work on the set as a director is straightforward).
Richard Jewell is straightforward. It lays out the facts of the story chronologically. It doesn't shy away from Jewell's flaws, and you could argue those flaws are why he was in a place to be a hero. The FBI and the press are the villains, but they are mostly not cartoon villains.
But then there's reporter Kathy Scruggs, played by Olivia Wilde. She comes closest to a cartoon, and there's a reason her real-life colleagues complained. She is wily ... she uses sex to get information ... she is the primary example of how the press made Jewell's life hell. Some of this might have been true, but it's safe to say, not all of it (that sex part is especially scuzzy). And while Jon Hamm's FBI agent was a composite with a fictional name, the film uses Scruggs' real name, casting aspersions on the real person in the process. It doesn't seem fair.
There is some good acting going on, as is usual in an Eastwood film ... he knows when to leave his actors alone. Paul Walter Hauser as the title character, Sam Rockwell as his lawyer, and Kathy Bates as his mother all shine (Bates got an Oscar nomination, losing to Laura Dern in Marriage Story). It's a Clint Eastwood movie. You know what you are getting beforehand, and then you get it. The treatment of Scruggs is a slip-up, so Richard Jewell won't be remembered as his finest work. But, as one reviewer said, it's "probably the best film ever made by an 89-year-old director".
If nothing else, the pandemic gives me the chance to catch up. Missed this last year ... rectified it for this week's Geezer Cinema. Not the best way to watch it: on a 30" TV with no external sound system, and the Starz version was cropped to fit the screen. It seemed like Tarantino and cinematographer Robert Richardson may have anticipated this ... even when two characters were on opposite sides of the screen, they managed to be visible on our TV.
I once wrote of Tarantino, "Tarantino’s flaws are easy to pick out, because they are often the same as his good points." It would be easy to balance out the good and the bad as a measure of how successful a Tarantino film is, but I don't know that it works, or rather, for me, the good always outweighs the bad. I've seen all of his movies except The Hateful Eight, and I've liked them all. The only thing those flaws do is prevent Tarantino from making a classic, but his best is way more than good enough. And Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood is one of his best.
For one thing, every actor wants a chance to work with Tarantino's dialogue, so he is able to do things like get Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt to star in his movie, as a fading actor and his stunt man. Tarantino's love of pop culture comes out partly in the way he casts his films with favorite actors of his that haven't been seen much of late (Clu Gulager, Rebecca Gayheart, Brenda Vaccaro). Besides Leo and Brad, OUATIH trots out Al Pacino and Bruce Dern. There are younger actors like Margot Robbie, Margaret Qualley, Maya Hawke, and Dakota Fanning. He brings back people who have been in previous QT pictures: Kurt Russell, Zoe Bell, Michael Madsen, Tim Roth (Roth gets a credit even though his part was edited out of the movie). I don't know if I thought of this before, but at least here, Tarantino shows an eye for actors better known for television: Timothy Olyphant, Luke Perry (his final role), Damian Lewis (who looks so much like Steve McQueen you think they used CGI), Costa Ronin, Damon Herriman, Lena Dunham, Mikey Madison (a long way from her work on Better Things), Sydney Sweeney, Scoot McNairy. OK, I've made my point.
Tarantino applies the same personalized touch to his soundtracks ... as we were watching, I told my wife if the official soundtrack included every song that we hear even for a short bit, it would be at least a 3-disc set (it turned out to only have 21 songs, along with commercials and DJ patter).
His connection to the (movie) past is one of those good-but-flawed aspects of his movies. I could make another list of historical figures who appear in OUATIH ... the fictional Leo's character lives next door to Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate, and of course, there's the Manson family. You might be fooled into thinking this is a true story, although you'd quickly figure out you were wrong. Perhaps the key is in the title: "Once Upon a Time" suggests a fairy tale is coming our way.
I'd be remiss if I didn't point out the way Tarantino indulges himself in ways that result in really long movies, but that indulging is often delightful. His recreations of old television series are detailed ... he makes up fake shows that look just like the real ones, and he has no problem stopping his movie for a bit just to show a bit of one of those excursions.
As the film moseyed along, I felt that rather than create tension, Tarantino was just relying on our knowledge of Manson, Tate, et al to give unearned suspense to his movie. As Mick LaSalle wrote, "It’s amazingly discursive. Tarantino knows he has our attention, because he knows that we know where the movie is heading, toward that fateful night in Bel Air. He also knows we’re not exactly in a hurry to get there." But the tension is real in the last part of the movie, partly because "we know where the movie is heading", yes, but also because Tarantino takes us there. And, of course, we don't necessarily know where it's heading, we just think we do.
Brad Pitt got an Oscar for his performance (Supporting Actor ... Leo was up for Best Actor, but the truth is, they are co-leads), and he deserved it. He commands the screen, even though he doesn't always seem to be doing anything, and even though he's working with DiCaprio, who is pretty good himself.
Stories from the Pandemic: Bloodshot is the first movie in our weekly Geezer Cinema date that we paid to stream (well, also to own, whatever). It's been 20 days since we actually went to a movie theater. Since then, Geezer Cinema has been Contagion (free streaming) and Us (recorded on the DVR). Bloodshot is part of the new trend ... is it a trend if it's temporary? Is it temporary? ... of studios releasing movies almost immediately after their theater opening, because no one is going to the movies right now.
Bloodshot is a superhero origin story based on a comic, but it's different enough to keep our attention. For one thing, Vin Diesel's character, Ray Garrison, isn't quite a superhero, although he gets to act like one. For another thing, while Bloodshot has enough going on to qualify as an action movie, it's really science-fiction. And the plot has just enough twists to keep you on your toes, although it's not too hard to figure out how it will all end (for one thing, it is clearly intended as the first in a franchise).
It's nothing special. Might have made a bigger impression in IMAX, which is how we originally intended to watch it before we couldn't go outside any more. But it's serviceable, and Vin Diesel is always good. Eiza González is almost unbelievably gorgeous, which doesn't get in the way of her action chops. Sam Heughan (equally gorgeous, although they do what they can to cancel it out in his case) will satisfy any Outlander fans who decide to watch. Dave Wilson, a Visual Effects guy, makes his directorial debut. If the pandemic prevents Bloodshot from being a huge hit and ruins the chances for a franchise, I suppose I will eventually forget I ever saw it. But I enjoyed it, anyway.
Jordan Peele surprised us all with his first directorial effort, Get Out. It was terrific, it was inventive, and it came from a man best known for sketch comedy. Get Out was so good, Peele lost any chance of ever surprising us in the same way again. Now we expect his movies to be good.
Us makes Peele two-for-two. Apparently Peele set out to make a straight horror film. Of course, Us is not just a straight horror film. And to the extent it is a horror film, it's a kitchen sink of horror. Peele piles it on: zombie apocalypse, home invasion, childhood terrors come back to haunt us. It also has its hilarious moments ... Peele can't seem to resist. (My favorite: when the family under attack tells their Alexa-thing to call the police, and it replied, "OK. Playing "Fuck the Police" by N.W.A.")
Peele doesn't get explicit with his social commentary here, which won't stop people from trying to find it. (This was much easier in Get Out, which was more obvious.) In fact, there is a certain vagueness to Us, and that actually makes it creepier ... the unexplained becomes frightening. In some ways, it is similar to Parasite, which was also a take on home invasions, only there, the invaders were the nominal "good guys". Parasite made its class consciousness unavoidable ... you couldn't miss it if you tried. Peele sneaks it in.
The entire film is uplifted by the incredible performance of Lupita Nyong'o. She is completely believable as both dopplegangers of her character. We see their connection, yet also experience them as separate. #653 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century.
Finally, I had a couple of personal connections to the movie. For one thing, it takes place mostly in and near Santa Cruz. I lived in the area once, and my wife and I go there every year to celebrate our anniversary. (During the prologue, which takes place in 1986, she said, "Just think, we'd only been married 13 years then!") And there's the use of "I Got 5 on It". The song was a pretty big hit in its day, and it was unavoidable in the Bay Area. But we knew it from the "Bay Ballas Remix". Honestly, I didn't know there was an "original" for the longest time.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.