triangle of sadness (ruben östlund, 2022)

With Triangle of Sadness, I have now seen 9 of the 10 movies nominated for a Best Picture Oscar this year (sorry, Avatar). I think Everything Everywhere All at Once and Women Talking are the cream of the crop (I'd include RRR, but it didn't get a nomination). I'd put Triangle of Sadness in the middle of the pack.

My guess is by next Monday no one will even remember that Triangle of Sadness got three Oscar nominations (Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay) and won none. Which isn't a knock on the movie ... there are more worthy/likely winners in those categories, and if the three nominations are a stretch, they aren't egregious. But Triangle of Sadness will eventually stand on its own, regardless of Oscar nominations, and based on what I've seen, it's a pretty typical Ruben Östlund picture. I've seen Force Majeure and The Square, and like Triangle of Sadness, those are odd movies, decent but not great, with just enough bizarreness to stick in your mind. I wrote about The Square, "You might call The Square smug ... at the least, it is quite proud of itself." I added, "None of the characters come off well, although they are pleasant enough on the surface and not exactly evil underneath." I'd say something similar about Triangle of Sadness. It's supposed to be an attack on class structure, it is an attack on class structure, but the rich people aren't mean enough. Which I can see as a good thing, but Östlund sets things up so we can enjoy the comeuppance of the rich, and then makes it less enjoyable because they aren't that awful despite their wealth. I may be asking for the wrong thing.

Force Majeure had an impressive avalanche, and The Square had some kind of monkey man who was also a work of art or something. The impressive avalanche in Triangle of Sadness is a colossal classy dinner served on a cruise ship during a storm that has some of the most ... what word am I looking for, "entertaining"? ... scenes of vomiting. It's not easily forgotten, for better or worse. It's even part of the publicity for the movie:

Triangle of sadness

Triangle of Sadness is too long ... it has three parts, and for me, the entire first part could have been cut without doing any damage to the film. (The Square was also too long.) It's another Ruben Östlund film that you'll remember with a combination of fondness and something less positive. With Harris Dickinson, Dolly de Leon, and Charlbi Dean (who died unexpectedly at 32 just after the film's release).

sign of the gladiator (guido brignone, 1959)

This is the eighteenth 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 18 is called "Sword and Sandals Week":

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen Peplum film.

As I have said many times, when it comes to bad movies, the most interesting things are usually the ones that aren't actually on the screen. Sign of the Gladiator (I've seen multiple titles for this one ... Nel segno di Roma is the original title, and in the U.S. it's also known as Sheba and the Gladiator ... did I mention there are no gladiators in this movie?) has Sergio Leone's name among many listed as writers. Director Guido Brignone got sick during the making of the film, and Michelangelo Antonioni did some uncredited work while Brignone was unable to be on set. I stumbled onto the film by accident ... the challenge was to watch a Peplum film, but the one I originally chose turned out to only be available in a Spanish dub, which seemed wrong considering the genre. So, Sign of the Gladiator.

"Peplum" is another way of saying "sword-and-sandal", and you know the genre even if you've never seen one. Hercules is the main character in many, and in others, Hercules has a different name because the film makers didn't own the rights to "Hercules". In truth, Sign of the Gladiator is a bit of an anomaly ... the only big battle scene comes at the end, and most of the movie consists of backroom skullduggery between Rome and Palmrya. And there's romance, which leads to the female lead, who played Zenobia, queen of Palmyra. She was Anita Ekberg, and I guess the studio decided if Anita Ekberg was in their movie, there better be some romance. Ekberg is an interesting person on her own, famous for splashing in a fountain in La Dolce Vita. As much as anything, she is the reason to watch the movie. But don't take that as a recommendation. If you are dying to see Ekberg, watch La Dolce Vita or Boccaccio '70.

Here's a brief clip from the English dub:

all quiet on the western front (edward berger, 2022)

The latest version of All Quiet on the Western Front reminded me of a couple of other WWI films. As I wrote at the time about 1917, "I'm not sure it's possible to make a pro-war movie about WWI." And there is the greatest of WWI movies, Kubrick's Paths of Glory, where the real targets of Kubrick’s attention are the highest-ranking officers of the French army. You get some of this in All Quiet in the late scenes with the general demanding that his troops spend the last 15 minutes before the armistice fighting for German "honor".

Tim Goodman pointed out that "You just can’t escape the odd, unsettling, eeriness of watching a movie set between 1914-1918 and see modern day similarities to Ukraine, 2023." This makes war seem inevitable and inescapable, and it's hard to imagine anyone watching All Quiet on the Western Front and feeling even a smidgen of hope. (Paths of Glory is similar, except there is a tacked-on final scene that tries to make the audience leave at least a little bit better.)

One of the best things about All Quiet is the insistence that there is no heroism possible under these circumstances. Paul Bäumer (Felix Kammerer) is the closest thing to a main character, and he acts nobly for the most part. But World War I was a stupid war (even given the general stupidity of all wars), and there is nothing any of these soldiers can do that might be called heroic. They are like Sisyphus, endlessly pushing a rock up a hill, watching it roll back down the hill, and then returning to push it up the hill again. There was no point in what the soldiers were asked to do, and while Edward Berger doesn't go as far as Kubrick in damning the generals, they are the ones who send the soldiers to their meaningless deaths.

The film is nominated for 9 Oscars, including Best Picture. One nomination it definitely deserves is for Best Makeup ... the varieties of mud-caked faces are amazing. Felix Kammerer is great ... it's hard to believe this is his first film. I'm not saying any of the five Actor nominees are unworthy, but Kammerer is hard to forget after this movie. Best Picture? It's not an insult to say it's not as good as some of the other nominees ... I'd say a nomination is an appropriate reward for the quality of the film.

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.