transsiberian (brad anderson, 2008)

This is the eighth film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2022-23", "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 8th annual challenge, and my fourth time participating (my first year can be found at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20", the second year at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2020-21", and last year at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2021-22"). Week 8 is called "Road Movies Week":

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen road movie.

TransSiberian is reminiscent of other movies, purposely. First-time director Brad Anderson (who also co-wrote the screenplay) has cited several influences, including Strangers on a Train and Runaway Train. There's nothing wrong with this ... Anderson shows good taste if nothing else ... while the general thrust of the picture is generic, Anderson tosses in enough twists to maintain interest. What matters more is that Anderson gradually builds tension, until it's nearly unbearable (in a good way). I found myself gritting my teeth as the movie progressed.

The cast helps. Emily Mortimer plays a been-around-the-block American who gets caught, Hitchcock style, in something big to which she isn't to blame, and Anderson gives her character perhaps the biggest plot twist, which cranks the film into another gear. Woody Harrelson has said that he based his character on an autistic version of his character on Cheers. "I kind of thought, what if he were 'Woody,' but a version of Woody that's really into trains?" It's a perfect description of what he gives us here. Kate Mara is touching, and if Ben Kingsley and Eduardo Noriega are a bit too easy to figure out in advance, they are nonetheless effective.

TransSiberian doesn't necessarily raise itself above the standards for its genre, but it's good enough that you don't care.


film fatales #149: toni erdmann (maren ade, 2016)

Toni Erdmann is one of the most critically acclaimed movies of recent years (it's #363 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time, #13 on the 21st-century list). I can see why. It's a lengthy comedy with plenty of insightful character studies, some fine acting by Sandra Hüller and Peter Simonischek, and many unique scenes. The story of an eccentric father and his workaholic daughter is simple on the surface, but there is nothing simple about the approach of Maren Ade, who wrote and directed the film.

And yet, I had problems with it. I'm inclined to think the problem is in me. The father's attempts to move his daughter away from a work life he sees as strangling her are well-meant, and it's easy to root for the free-spirited father in his quest. The daughter certainly seems to dislike her life. But while his actions, most of which involve ridiculous fake teeth, are funny at first, ultimately for me, I started to side with the daughter. I didn't envy the pressures her job put on her, I thought she could use some relief, but her father's antics made me hate him. I ended up wishing he would leave her alone, which I'm sure isn't Ade's intended point. Your mileage may vary, of course ... like I said, critics loved it.


the bridge (bernhard wicki, 1959)

I first saw The Bridge almost 50 years ago. I found it to be an incredible emotional experience with a strong anti-war sentiment. But I'd never seen it since then, and it seems to have disappeared from popular discussion. It doesn't end up on many of those lists you see regarding great films. Director Bernhard Wicki has been largely forgotten ... he directed a film with Marlon Brando and Yul Brynner that I remember seeing in a theater in the 1960s, and he worked on the German segments of The Longest Day, but he doesn't even merit a listing in David Thomson's endlessly revised Biographical Dictionary of Film.

The Bridge, though, stuck in my mind for all these years, and now that I've finally watched it again, I can say with confidence that it hasn't lost a bit of its power.

Kael called the film "brutally cool and lucid", and that's on the money. The film takes place in Germany at the tail end of World War II. The Germans are losing badly, and they start drafting young boys to fill the ranks. Wicki spends the first part of the movie showing us the boys in their element, going to school, flirting with girls, talking bravely about war, bragging that they want to serve. Their mothers don't want to lose their boys, and many of the older men in the town know enough about war to hope that these youngsters will never know the reality.

Of course, they do face that reality, as do we in the audience. The early scenes establish how young the boys are, which makes the battle scenes that much harder to watch. Sometimes, a film will be called "anti-war" because it shows the brutality, but the heroism in the face of danger demonstrated by soldiers defeats the anti-war message. That doesn't happen here. Whatever braggadocio the boys show in the beginning falls apart when they are confronted with the actual war.


geezer cinema: rush (ron howard, 2013)

At this point, reviews of Ron Howard movies write themselves, i.e. I can just cut and paste from earlier reviews and it will make perfect sense. He has made movies I liked OK (Cinderella Man, Frost/Nixon) and movies I really didn't like (Apollo 13), but I've never loved any of them. I once wrote of Howard, "Ron Howard is the great disappearing director of our times. He doesn't make bad movies, he doesn't make great movies. He makes movies that get 6 out of 10 and he makes movies that get 7 out of 10. In other words, I don't have the slightest idea what Ron Howard brings to a movie." And about Cinderella Man, the story of boxer James Braddock, I wrote, "When asked why he fights, Braddock says it's to keep milk on the family table, and there's Ron Howard in a nutshell ... while this movie has tiny pretensions towards statements about poverty, they are overwhelmed by sappiness, and the sap is never, ever balanced with even a bit of knowing irony ... Ron Howard believes in that glass of milk."

Not all Ron Howard movies are sappy, and as I say, once in a while he makes a good movie. But there is no way to tell in advance, because Ron Howard's directing is anonymous.

Rush is about the rivalry between two Formula One drivers in the 1970s, Niki Lauda and James Hunt. I admit I knew nothing about either driver, or about Formula One racing in general, which actually helped in a way ... I didn't know how the rivalry would turn out, so that aspect of the film had suspense for me. The movie centers on their relationship more than it does on the racing ... the racing is the background for the relationship, rather than the other way around. Hunt and Lauda are different kinds of people striving towards the same goal, and those differences drive the film (no pun intended) in good ways. The racing scenes seem realistic, although we're constantly being told by a track announcer what is happening, because it isn't always clear the way it is during a horse race. There are some women characters, but they are very secondary ... this isn't about them, except as they fit into the lives of the racers. Daniel Brühl and Chris Hemsworth give appropriate performances as not-too-perfect heroes. The editing of Dan Hanley and Mike Hill is effective, as is the score by Hans Zimmer.

There is no reason not to see Rush. It's appealing, it's not boring, it's got Thor. It's just that I've about given up hope that a Ron Howard movie will ever be better than "no reason not to see it".


film fatales #134: high life (claire denis, 2018)

This is the twenty-fifth 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 25 is called "Arthouse Sci-Fi Week":

So you take sci-fi, a genre known for its contemplation of human nature through the use of futurism, and shove it through the filter of thoughtful, less than accessible cinema, and what do you get?

A headscratcher, probably. But a good one.

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen Arthouse Sci-Fi film from Rob's list.

I didn't look forward to this challenge category, but looking at the Arthouse Sci-Fi list above, I found several movies I liked, including La Jetée, Children of Men, and Melancholia. And I've liked the few Claire Denis films I've seen.

My favorite bit of trivia about this film: "Claire Denis's first English language film after 13 feature films in French. She stated the reason she made it in English was that she simply couldn't imagine people speaking French in space, only either English or Russian."

The first time I read Faulkner's classic The Sound and the Fury, I was completely confused. The novel is written in parts, each of which has a different narrator. The first narrator is mentally disabled. When I began reading, I found that narrative hard to follow, and at first I didn't know about the narrator's disability, nor did I know there would be other narrators as the book progressed. The non-linear stream of consciousness left me befuddled. Once I had finished the book, once I understood the structure and had an idea of what Faulkner was up to, the novel became, if not completely clear, at least more understandable.

In High Life, Denis uses a non-linear structure, but she doesn't tell us she is doing this. We don't get the usual markers of "THREE YEARS EARLIER" or whatever that are so common today. And so I was confused at the beginning, much as I was in The Sound and the Fury. Eventually the structure becomes more clear, and if I watched the movie again, I wouldn't be thrown off by the opening. But it was unsettling, and while there is nothing wrong with that approach, it threw me off and made me wonder how I would get through the entire movie.

Denis takes her time, but once I connected with the flow of the film, I liked what I saw. The almost hallucinatory feel matched what I imagine life would be like on an endless exploration into space. The interactions of the various people on the ship are intriguing, and the open-ended conclusion is satisfactory. High Life isn't quite up to my favorite Denis movies (Beau Travail and 35 Shots of Rum), but it adds to the 100% list of Claire Denis movies I have seen and liked. Bonus points for casting André 3000. #379 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century.


geezer cinema: spencer (pablo larraín, 2021)

I can't say I was disappointed. I am not a fan of biopics, so my expectations were low. Pablo Larraín deserves credit for doing something different than the usual biopic. The story is limited to three days, December 24-26, 1991. There is no attempt to get every event of Diana's life into the movie, and that's a good thing. Spencer is a psychological study of a woman ... it happens that we know of this woman, we probably think we know a lot about her even though we've never met her, and the real-life events that helped make Diana who she was influence the portrait of her in the movie. But it's more psychology than it is a tale of royalty.

I've described a movie I might like. As I say, I'm not a lover of biopics, but Spencer isn't like most biopics, and I am not a lover of movies about royalty, but Spencer is more about Diana than it is about royalty. So why didn't I like it?

I like Kristen Stewart, and before this, I'd never seen a movie with Stewart that I didn't like. She was often the best thing in the movies I saw. Personal Shopper in particular showcased her abilities, not least because she's on screen for almost the entire movie. At the time, I wrote:

Stewart has to carry the film ... I'm hard pressed to remember more than a couple of minutes where she isn't on the screen. She has a way of underplaying that matches well with the movie, and if you aren't paying attention, you might think she's barely acting at all. But she holds our attention throughout, and draws us into her character, which means she's acting up a storm, only without actually acting up a storm. It's a very good performance.

Well, she is on screen for almost all of Spencer, and she underplays, and she's gotten her first Oscar nomination, and she's already won several awards for her performance here, and I'm happy for her, because she is a fine actress. But she is awful in Spencer. Some of it is the fault of the film's construction ... at the beginning of the film, Diana is going through an existential crisis that leaves her depressed, and at the end of the film, the only real change is that she has taken her first steps towards freeing herself of that crisis. But for most of the two hours, she is the same as she was when we first meet her. There's nothing that Stewart can latch onto to show she is capable of more than existential depression. Critic Mick LaSalle went to town on the movie:

It turns a natural talent into a mannered freak. It takes one of the most gifted screen actresses of her generation and casts her out to sea with nothing to hold onto but a hideous script that’s all attitude without depth or understanding.... Stewart is usually the most relaxed of performers, which allows her to follow the inspiration of the moment in her reactions. Here, watching her, one can almost feel her neck tense as she speaks every line. Again, not Diana’s tension, but Stewart’s.

Spencer is liked by many critics, and for all I know, Stewart will win that Oscar. I've seen four of the five nominees, and I'd put her at the bottom. And that's why I was disappointed, because Kristen Stewart is worth watching no matter the movie, but Spencer somehow squashes that.

One last thing: I made a note to say something about the music in the movie, which I'll do when I want to remember to praise something. And Jonny Greenwood has gotten a lot of positive attention for his work here. But I honestly can no longer remember why I made that note to myself, and I only saw Spencer two days ago. Blame it on my old age, I guess.

[Letterboxd list of Geezer Cinema movies]


holy motors (leos carax, 2012)

Holy Motors is one of the most acclaimed movies of the 21st century, ranked #11 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the21st century, and #285 on their all-time list. Director Leos Carax is an icon of his era. I had only seen one of his movies prior to Holy Motors, Mauvais Sang, which I saw so long ago I hadn't even begun this endless blog yet (I don't remember why, but apparently I didn't like it). Holy Motors has an intriguing, cultish cast, not just Denis Lavant (ever-present in the films of Carax) but also people like Eva Mendes and Kylie Minogue. Best of all is Edith Scob, who was an icon herself for her appearance in Eyes Without a Face:

Eyes without a face

In Holy Motors, Scob, who by that time was in her 70s, plays a limousine driver who takes a man on various "appointments", in the manner of Mr. Phelps in the Mission Impossible TV series. Carax loves to make reference to films he has loved, and ... spoiler alert ... in the last scene, Scob's character puts on a mask that looks like the one from Eyes Without a Face. Honestly, the mask in the Carax film seems pointless, but it was nonetheless my favorite part of the entire movie.

Holy Motors is not the kind of movie you come to hoping for a clear narrative, or even a narrative at all. It consists of a series of scenes (of the "appointments") that are connected by the presence of "Mr. Oscar" (Lavant), who is (or may be) an actor. For each appointment, he changes his look (he has an entire makeup and costume workspace in the limousine) and takes part in some event that may (or may not be) "real". Lavant is remarkable, it is true, and a few of the appointments are more interesting than others.

Champions of Holy Motors speak to its visual beauty and innovative structure. And Carax is rewarded for not doing the same old thing as everyone else. Manohla Dargis wrote, "It’s an episodic work of great visual invention — from scene to scene, you never see what’s coming — that reminds you just how drearily conventional many movies are."

Holy Motors is in the time-honored tradition of Movies That Are Not for Steven. It seems that Carax has gotten exactly what he wanted from the film, which is more rare than it should be, and which deserves praise. I can't say Holy Motors is bad, which might imply incompetence, and Carax is in full control. I can only say that I didn't much like it.


sátántangó (béla tarr, 1994)

Definitely a case of Eat Your Vegetables. I never found myself involved in Sátántangó ... OK, I laughed a couple of times, which I suppose is something, although two laughs in 7 hours and 19 minutes doesn't qualify as a laff riot. Yes, I know Sátántangó isn't meant to be a laff riot. I'm just looking for something to say about a movie I'd heard so much about, that I finally got around to watching, and as I expected, it's in the Terrence Malick Genre of Movies That Accomplish What the Film Makers Set Out to Do but That Aren't Meant for Me. (Factoid I didn't know: Malick is 12 years old than Béla Tarr.)

Seriously, this movie was never meant for me, and I can't dismiss it just because I didn't like it. So if you think you'd like to see a 439-minute example of Slow cinema, or if like me you are a wannabe completist who absolutely needs to see the 109th-best movie of all time according to the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They website, then by all means, go for it. Here's a tentative place to start, a Letterboxd list I just created filled with Slow cinema movies:

Slow cinema

Or, if you want to start with Slow movies I loved, check out L'Avventura or 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (some would argue these two movies are not Slow cinema), or Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce 1080 Bruxelles (which most definitely is Slow cinema).

There was one segment in Sátántangó that I found objectionable far beyond the "Tarr is accomplishing what he set out to do" angle. I knew from reading about the film that there would be a scene where a girl tortures and kills a cat. I wasn't prepared for the actuality, though. As I wrote on Facebook, "The cat scenes were far worse than I expected after reading about them and also reading an interview with Tarr. What a bunch of shit ... oh, we didn't hurt the cat, we had a vet there, blah blah blah. When she put the cat in a mesh net, the cat didn't look like it wanted to be a movie star as it struggled to escape. When she forced the cat's face into the milk, the cat wasn't having any fun. But it's all OK, because it's Art."

In honor of Phil Dellio, I have to post this highlight from the film, since he has used it many times as a way to convince me ... well, not sure what, but it worked, I did finally watch the movie.


geezer cinema: stowaway (joe penna, 2021)

Director Joe Penna and writer Ryan Morrison made a film called Arctic that got decent reviews, although it slipped right past me. Stowaway would have done the same ... I'd never heard of it ... until my wife picked it for our weekly Geezer Cinema date. One of the best things about something scheduled like Geezer Cinema is that every two weeks, my wife chooses the movie, and it's rarely something I would have chosen on my own. So I get exposed to new stuff.

Penna and Morrison intended to do a lot with a little. The budget was only $10 million. They got some good actors who were just below the kind of star power that costs money (Toni Collette, Anna Kendrick, Daniel Dae Kim, Shamier Anderson), and created a chamber piece where there were no other actors and most of the action took place on a space ship that looked mostly functional ... not cheap, but not expensive. They had a couple of nice visual set pieces that also looked inexpensive without looking cheap. And they veered away from standard space-ship shenanigans ... yes, there was a stowaway, but it wasn't the monster from Alien, just an engineer who was accidentally left on board (not the only time the plot was a bit too much to believe). Stowaway is interested in big concepts, human concepts about the meaning of life, which intensify when the four passengers realize the ship, which is headed for Mars, doesn't have enough air for all four of them.

The problem is, Stowaway moves at a glacial pace. It's about four people, but we never learn enough about them to actually care what happens to them. It's basically uninteresting for two hours. It has hints of Gravity, except Gravity is a great film that makes us care about Sandra Bullock floating in space. And it's half-an-hour shorter than Stowaway. If you're going to take your time with your story, you need to give us some reason to stick around, and Stowaway never gets there.


after the rehearsal (ingmar bergman, 1984)

This is the twenty-first 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 21 is called "Shot by Sven Week".

Sven Nykvist is one of the most well renowned and critically acclaimed cinematographers of all time. Though he's often associated with his films shot with Ingmar Bergman, he's worked with a number of high profile directors on almost 100 films. If you're unfamiliar with his imagery, its time to take a look.

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen film with cinematography by Sven Nykvist film.

Watching After the Rehearsal in 2021 carries the reality of the pandemic. The film, made for television, is a chamber piece with one set and three characters, the kind of structure that is a bit more prevalent right now, when it is so difficult to be expansive with film making. Of course, Bergman wasn't thinking about pandemics when he made this film (unlike The Seventh Seal, which takes place during a plague pandemic). The three characters are Henrik Vogler (Erland Josephson), who is directing a new version of Strindberg's A Dream Play; Rakel Egerman (Ingrid Thulin), a middle-aged actor who worked with Vogler in the past; and Rakel's daughter Anna (Lena Olin), who is starring in the current production.

After the Rehearsal is itself something of a dream play. Roger Ebert wrote of the confusion people seemed to have with the film:

Reading the earlier reviews of the film, I discover that one critic realized only belatedly that the younger actress, Anna, was onstage the whole time the older actress, Rakel, poured out her heart. Strange, and yet another critic thought the whole scene with Rakel was the director's own dream. Yet another suggested that Anna represents not only herself but also Rakel's absent daughter. And another theory is that Anna is the daughter of the director and Rakel, and is brought into being by the residual love between them, as a sort of theatrical Holy Spirit. The age of Anna has been variously reported as ranging from twelve to twenty, with one critic reporting that both ages of the character are represented.

The film has a supernatural feel, even though Bergman uses no obvious tricks. When the film opens, Vogler is alone in the theater after the day's rehearsal ... as we see him, he is waking up, commenting on how things look strange. Anna appears, they interact ... Anna reveals her hatred of her mother. The mother appears, despite the fact that she is dead ... a younger Anna (played by Nadja Palmstjerna-Weiss) observes it all, unnoticed by the other two. The mother leaves, Olin-as-Anna returns. It is entirely possible that After the Rehearsal comes out of Vogler's head, perhaps in a dream. Bergman doesn't press this point (hence the confusion Ebert mentions). Thus, he creates something supernatural that could just as easily be a straightforward recounting of a night in a theater.

The scene between Vogler and Rakel is especially intense compared to the two scenes with Anna and Vogler, which is perhaps inevitable, given that Ingrid Thulin is one of the most intense actors ever. (Bergman writes of one scene, "[I]n this film she couldn't distance herself from her part. When she would say the line 'Do you think that my instrument is destroyed forever?' she would begin to cry. I told her, 'Please don't sentimentalize!' To me, it seemed natural for her to say the line with cool observance. Instead she burst out crying every time. Finally I gave up.") Lena Olin holds her own in this company, no small achievement considering the abilities of Josephson and Thulin.

Ultimately, After the Rehearsal is as much a family drama as it is a commentary on the theater. As for Sven Nykvist, he doesn't have any vast panoramas to play with in this one-set movie. He uses a lot of close-ups, and overall, he suggests the smallness of the setting without our noticing. It's not as expansive as the work that earned him two Oscars (for Cries & Whispers and Fanny and Alexander), but it perfectly suits what is needed here.

The opening of the film: