a fistful of dollars (sergio leone, 1964)

The first of the so-called Dollars Trilogy ... Sergio Leone didn't intend them to be a trilogy, and perhaps nowadays we'd call it a franchise, with Leone directing Clint Eastwood as the Man with No Name. Many of the trademarks of Leone's style are here ... it's hard to miss the close-ups. It's easily the shortest ... the films got progressively longer, and A Fistful of Dollars is more than half-an-hour shorter than the next in the series, For a Few Dollars More. It's a decent movie, if not up to the standards of the real classic of the three, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.

The plot of A Fistful of Dollars is reminiscent of that for Kurosawa's Yojimbo, and Kurosawa successfully sued Leone's company. (The irony is that Yojimbo's plot is very similar to Dashiell Hammett's novel Red Harvest.) A settlement was eventually achieved, but the release of A Fistful of Dollars in the United States was delayed for three years. Perhaps this is one reason a trilogy is assumed, for by the time the dust cleared in the lawsuit, Leone had finished the other two films, which were all released in the States in the same year (1967).

While Leone had an interesting career, more than anything, this film began the establishment of Clint Eastwood as an iconic actor in film history. Of course, he later became an Oscar-winning director, using much the same style of directing that he did in his acting: minimalist.


film fatales #202: trouble every day (claire denis, 2001)

Claire Denis (Beau Travail, 35 Shots of Rum) is a favorite director of mine, and I looked forward to Trouble Every Day, but I was aware that it is not as acclaimed as her other movies (it has the lowest Metascore, 40, of any film she has directed). I think that low Metascore is understandable, and Trouble Every Day isn't up to her best. But it's an interesting attempt to make an arty erotic horror movie ... I'm thinking of Park Chan-wook's Thirst, which is a better movie than Trouble Every Day but has a similar blend of sex and gore shown with arty excellence.

Trouble Every Day seems like it is going to be a vampire movie, but it turns into something different, which allows for subtexts that don't necessarily match those of vampire pictures. Denis shows a connection between erotic attraction and cannibalism that is unexpected. It's thought-provoking, but I'm not convinced it goes deeper than the basic connection. Once you get what Denis is doing, there's not much else to say about that connection, leaving an arty horror movie that isn't all that great.

The acting is variable. Béatrice Dalle (Betty Blue) brings her idiosyncratic presence to her scenes, but Vincent Gallo is too low-key ... he struggles with what he has become, but his struggle isn't moving because Gallo is inert. There is also a big plot hole at the beginning (not that horror doesn't often have plot holes): Gallo plays a recently-married man who, we assume, has become intimate with his new wife, but given what we learn of him in the movie, it's impossible for his wife not to have noticed long before. It's hard to suspend disbelief in this case.

Despite that Metascore, the film is #793 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time, #103 on the 21st century list.


geezer cinema: the good, the bad and the ugly (sergio leone, 1966)

Watched this one for the billionth time. You run out of things to say. My opinion of this movie has risen over the years, and it might be favorite by Leone. But this viewing was remarkably like one I wrote about in 2009. Then, I talked about the new "Blu-ray" technology and high-definition TV. Substitute "4k Blu-ray" for "Blu-ray" and you'd have pretty much what I was thinking as I watched this new disc:

It’s a sign that a particular technology has become established when you notice its absence more than its presence. When Blu-ray first came along, I marveled at the look of every movie I watched … it was new and beautiful. The same was true for Hi-Def TV, which doesn’t quite match the exquisiteness of Blu-ray, but is enough of an improvement over standard definition that every show was a joy. As some point, though, that look became ordinary in a good way. Good, because I take it for granted. The only time I notice the picture now is when it’s not in HD. The Blu-ray of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly looks great. The movie itself is also quite something.

One other change from 2009: back then, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly was #187 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time. As I write this, it's up to #156.

My wife, who can at times be a bit of a spoilsport (a crime I am guilty of far more often than she is) said that the climactic shootout between the titular trio is lacking logic. Clint Eastwood is the one of the three who already knows where the money is, and he has already emptied Eli Wallach's gun without Tuco knowing about it. When the men finally shoot, Clint goes straight to Lee Van Cleef. My wife pointed out that Blondie could have shot Angel Eyes at any point. I said we were talking about one of the most iconic scenes in movie history, and when that's the topic, logic isn't the first thing that should come to mind.

One final thought. Clint Eastwood has developed a recognizable style as a director over the years, and when he makes westerns, someone will always say the Leone influence is clear. But you can't find two less similar directors. Eastwood is a minimalist, Leone is extravagant.


downfall (oliver hirschbiegel, 2004)

It's always an odd feeling to come to a classic film long after everyone else has already seen it. It's especially weird in this case, because Downfall has become famous in the nearly 20 years since its release as the source for endless parodies of one particular scene. If you haven't seen Downfall, you might think you know nothing about it, but chances are you've seen at least one of these:

There's nothing wrong with these parodies, and sure, we know when we watch them that they aren't meant to represent the actual movie. But while I didn't expect to see 2 1/2 hours of Hitler rants, I realized as I watched that the endless parodies did give me a warped sense of what went on in Downfall. I assumed the entire movie would take place in Hitler's bunker, but actually much of the film takes place outside the bunker, as Berlin falls to the Russians. The isolation of Hitler in his bunker is contrasted with the realities of what the German people are experiencing at that moment.

Some have criticized Downfall for showing "the human side" of Hitler and his Nazis, and the presentation of scenes in the bunker do engender a certain uncomfortable connection with the bunker's inhabitants. As Charlie Bertsch wrote, "Even though Hitler is clearly mad and his associates mostly venal and inept, their dire predicament and the time viewers spend with them in the claustrophobically close quarters of the bunker elicit a kind of structural identification, a sympathy in spite of itself à la the famous 'Stockholm Syndrome', that threatens to conceal the magnitude of their crimes." This makes the scenes outside the bunker crucial: once we lose the claustrophobic connection, once we see the horrors in Berlin, we awake from our Stockholm Syndrome.

Perhaps lost in all of this is that Downfall is a great movie. Bruno Ganz's portrayal of Hitler is uncanny. Ulrich Matthes' Goebbels looks like a zombie, which is somehow scarily appropriate. And Alexandra Maria Lara perfectly captures the complications of her character, Hitler's secretary Traudl Junge, who survived and later in life wrote a memoir that is one of the sources for the film.

Here is the actual scene that inspired a thousand parodies:

Personal addendum: on our honeymoon 50 years ago, my wife and I went to a movie. That became a tradition ... every year on our anniversary, we see a movie together. That honeymoon movie was Hitler: The Last Ten Days, with Alec Guinness. Here is the "Steiner" scene from that movie ... it's startling how much it resembles Downfall, which came out more than 30 years later:


you will die at twenty (amjad abu alala, 2019)

You Will Die at Twenty is a rare feature from Sudan, made under tense conditions. The first feature for director Amjad Abu Alala, based on a short story, the film was made in Sudan during the Sudanese Revolution. Since there was no real film industry in Sudan, Abu Alala had to rely on outside resources (it's hard to pin down, but at least five production companies  and eight producers were involved).

Which would be interesting trivia but nothing more, if the film wasn't good. And it's much more than good, the story of a mother who is told by an elder that her newborn baby, Muzamil, will die at 20. Whether we in the audience believe this premonition is irrelevant ... most of the village thinks it's true, and as we watch Muzamil grow, we see the burden this brings upon him and his mother. Those burdens are real, even if we find them misguided. Abu Alala doesn't choose a side. He respects the religious beliefs of the villagers but also shows us the impossible restraints those beliefs impose on Muzamil. The end of the movie is gently ambiguous.

Islam Mubarak is quietly powerful as the mother, while Moatasem Rashed and Mustafa Shehata shine as the young Muzamil and the teenager he becomes. The film is gorgeous to look at (Sébastien Goepfert is the cinematographer). Nothing we see on the screen reflects the difficult conditions under which is was made, and it most definitely does not look like a debut feature.


film fatales #168: europa europa (agnieszka holland, 1990)

The revelations of the plot of Europa Europa will strike you as too convenient. More than once, when the main character Sally is teetering on the edge of being discovered as a Jew amongst Nazis, something happens, like an Allied bombing, that removes those who might accuse him. But these coincidences are allowed, because Europa Europa is a true story, based on the memoirs of the real Solomon Perel.

There are many ways in which writer/director Agnieszka Holland avoids making "just another Holocaust movie". The primary way is through a subdued humor, rarely laugh-out-loud but inevitably contrasted to the way we tend to think of the Holocaust. In a different context, Sally's story does have its funny moments. Part of what makes the movie successful is that Holland never loses sight of the context that always interrupts those moments. And she never collapses into slapstick ... this isn't an outrageous Holocaust comedy, but rather the story of how one boy managed to survive in the most dreadful of situations.

The overall tone does detract, ultimately ... it's an interesting movie that would be more hard-hitting without the humor, or more shocking without the context. But that tone is also what distinguishes Europa Europa from other films. Even as you experience scenes that remind you of movies from the past, you've never seen anything quite like this one. Bonus points for the presence of a young Julie Delpy, dubbed into German.


the lunchbox (ritesh batra, 2013)

This is the thirtieth 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 30 is called "Modern Bollywood Week":

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen modern Bollywood film, as dictated by Ramish's list here.

This was the first feature for writer-director Ritesh Batra. He had intended to make a documentary about the Dabbawala, a lunchbox delivery service in India that works remarkably well. Doing research, Batra decided there were plenty of good stories among the delivery workers, and so he opted to create a fictional film, The Lunchbox. The documentary basis is evident in the detailed way he shows us how the system works. But the central story is a romance between a wife, Ila, who makes lunches for her husband, and a man, Saajan, who accidentally receives her lunches (a mistake said to occur only once every six million deliveries). The two form a relationship around those lunchboxes ... she includes a note in each box, and he writes a response for when the box is returned. The relationship deepens, as does the length of the notes, which become more like letters.

All of the acting is excellent: the late, award-winning Irrfan Khan as Saajan, Nimrat Kaur as Ila, and Nawazuddin Siddiqui as a workmate of Saajan's. It's a delightful first feature, although I felt a bit cheated by the ending, which is inconclusive when the audiences wants resolution.


african-american directors series: sankofa (haile gerima, 1993)

Sankofa is a passionate film about slavery in America that, like the novel Kindred, uses time travel to place a woman from modern times back into the horrors of the old South. Sankofa is complex ... it's about more than "slavery is bad". As writer/director Haile Gerima states, "This isn't a film about slavery. It's about the untold history of black people and our resistance." While Gerima doesn't shy away from showing slavery's brutalities, he never resorts to the kind of exploitation porn that gives audiences a chance to enjoy what they simultaneously claim to reject.

He tells the tale of an American fashion model, Mona, shooting in Ghana, who is transported back to the times of plantation life in America. Gerima purposely refrains from an exact explanation for what happens to Mona, but there seems to be a connection between her posing for a white photographer and the disapproval of a black elder who thinks Mona is denying her heritage. (This is shown when Mona is captured by slavers ... she keeps insisting, "I'm American! I'm not African!") The details of the plot don't make a lot of sense ... Mona ends up as a slave named Shola whose doesn't have memories of Mona (unlike the heroine of Kindred, who knows her "modern" self when she is transported back in time). As the film progresses, we see that the black people strive to retain their own culture in the midst of slave life in America.

In Sankofa, contemporary black Americans must connect their present to their past, not in the name of victimhood but in the name of resistance. In our time, white America still gets to choose how our historical narrative is presented. Sankofa draws a different picture of the past, leading the way to a more accurate history and a present with more possibilities.

Gerima does his own editing, and it is effective in making connections when the plot is doing other things. Agustín Cubano does the beautiful cinematography. The acting is heroic and inspiring throughout, especially Oyafunmike Ogunlano as Mona/Shola. Sankofa was recently named by Slate as one of 75 films comprising the New Black Film Canon.


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: