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).

pity (babis makridis, 2018)

This is the twenty-ninth 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 29 is called "Greek Weird Wave Week":

From Wikipedia:

"In the 1990s, younger Greek filmmakers began experimenting with iconographic motifs. In spite of, or because of, funding issues created by the financial crisis in the late 2000s, unique Greek films such as Yorgos Lanthimos's Dogtooth (2009), Panos H. Koutras' Strella (2009) and Athina Rachel Tsangari's Attenberg (2010) received international acclaim, constituting what has been called the "Greek Weird Wave".

Dogtooth, Attenberg and Alps are part of what some film critics, including Steve Rose of The Guardian, have termed the "Greek Weird Wave," which involves movies with haunting cinematography, alienated protagonists and absurdist dialogue. Other films mentioned as part of this "wave" include Panos H. Koutras's Strella (2009) and Yannis Economides's Knifer (2010)."

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen Greek Weird Wave film.

I'd only seen two films from the Greek Weird Wave, both directed by Vorgos Lanthimos (The Lobster and The Favourite), and I wasn't overly impressed. Pity had some interesting moments, mostly grounded in the performance by Giannis Drakopoulos as a lawyer with a young son and a wife in a coma. At first, Drakopoulos barely seems to be acting. He seems to be dealing with his grief by shutting down. When his wife remarkably recovers, instead of feeling better, the lawyer begins to miss the pity he received when she was in the hospital. He's at a loss, more so than when he was without his wife. At first, he lies to others, telling them she is still in a coma, and when that quits working, he resorts to extremes as he realizes he is addicted to grief and pity and sadness.

Pity is often quietly amusing, at least until things get extreme. The latter part of the movie feels a bit disconnected from what has set it up, and the lawyer's actions are unsettling in a way that is uncomfortable for the audience. Which may be the point, but it's not exactly a barrel of laughs watching it. I feel a bit awkward wishing that Pity was something different than intended, but in the end, my reaction to the film is a bit like the lawyer in the first part of the movie.

geezer cinema/film fatales #129: the lost daughter (maggie gyllenhaal, 2021)

The Lost Daughter is a complicated movie, and writer/director Maggie Gyllenhaal, working from a novel by Elena Ferrante, never shows a sign that this is her first time behind the camera. It's a film about women and motherhood, told from the perspective of a woman, and Gyllenhaal's guiding hand ensures that no matter how upsetting some of the main character's action are, we still see them as part of a continuum of stereotypes that still try to force women into roles concocted by men.

Olivia Colman has the showier role as a middle-aged professor, Leda, in the modern-day segments. Jessie Buckley plays the same character 20 years earlier, and for once, the back-and-forth timeline is useful rather than ostentatious. It's a bit like the Robert De Niro scenes in The Godfather: Part II, where we learn a lot about Vito Corleone when we see his formative years. Buckley's Leda is an often-overwhelmed mother trying to balance her family life and her academic work, and it's not hard to see how this eventually turned into the Leda played by Colman. As others have noted, though, Gyllenhaal is not judgmental. Leda/Buckley can be a mess, and she doesn't always act in the perfect way with her kids, but the portrait Gyllenhaal and Buckley present does not make Leda into a monster or an angel. She's a woman of many parts, like most real people.

If the earlier Leda scenes help us understand the later Leda, that doesn't change the fact that Leda/Colman does act at times in ways that are hard to accept. Gyllenhaal may think she is avoiding a judgmental approach here as well, but Leda commits one act which is meanspirited in a way that makes her unlikeable. And yes, it's a burden for women to have to always be likeable, but the Leda of 20 years ago never falls into meanness. We may feel we know why Leda steals and hides a little girl's doll, but it's a mean act nonetheless, and I felt it the film passes judgment in ways that it mostly avoids.

Ultimately, The Lost Daughter is an excellent film that announces a new writer/director talent that we might have thought we already knew. (Ironically, as I think of Gyllenhaal's accomplishment, I can't help but connect it to her character arc in The Deuce, where she begins as a prostitute turned porn actress who eventually finds some power by becoming a porn director.)

geezer cinema/film fatales #128: the power of the dog (jane campion, 2021)

This makes six Jane Campion movies I have seen ... second among women directors only to Kathryn Bigelow in terms of how many of their films I have seen (I've also seen six from Agnès Varda, who is probably my favorite woman director). I've never seen a Varda movie I didn't like a lot. I've been a fan of Bigelow for more than 30 years; I look forward to her movies and try to see them when they are released, but there has been an occasional dud (The Weight of Water). Campion is a different case. I haven't considered any I've seen to be classics (my favorite is probably An Angel at My Table), and I reacted so negatively to In the Cut that I need to see it again to figure out if I was just in a bad mood. She gets extra credit for the first season of Top of the Lake. Basically, Jane Campion has been involved with many films in my viewing experience, and while I don't always remember to include her, she certainly belongs in any list of my important directors.

A winner of multiple awards, The Power of the Dog has so much going for it. It looks beautiful (Ari Wegner is the cinematographer, with New Zealand standing in admirably for Montana). The music from Jonny Greenwood gets into your head from the start (the closed captioning makes frequent mention of "uneasy music playing"). At the least, Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, and Kodi Smit-McPhee are likely Oscar nominees, and Jesse Plemons is right there with them (plus it's always nice to see Keith Carradine). The film examines toxic masculinity so deeply that a Google search of "power of the dog toxic masculinity" gets six million hits.

And yet ... blame it on me, but despite all of the above, I wasn't quite engaged with the movie as it was playing. I threatened to doze off more than once, and it was only thanks to later reviewing of a couple of scenes that I really understood what had happened. Blame it on me ... but there was something about The Power of the Dog that lulled me. I felt almost encouraged to let my attention wander. The result was a movie that elicited a big "Huh?" from me as it ended. I worked at getting the information that would help my appreciation, and I now disavow my "Huh". But exactly why did that happen in the first place?

I'll avoid spoilers, but I want to point out the first dialogue we hear, from an unknown narrator. "When my father passed, I wanted nothing more than my mother's happiness. For what kind of man would I be if I did not help my mother? If I did not save her?" We soon ascertain who the speaker is, and these lines are crucial to the film's ending. Beyond that, I'll say no more for now, but I suspect this is a movie that will reward a second viewing down the road.

[Letterboxd list of Jane Campion movies I have seen]

[Letterboxd list of Geezer Cinema movies]

[Letterboxd list of Film Fatales movies]

geezer cinema: midnight special (jeff nichols, 2016)

I've seen one other Jeff Nichols film, Take Shelter, which also stars Michael Shannon (not exactly an unusual occurrence ... I believe Shannon has appeared in all of Nichols' features so far). I said of that film that it was "like M. Night Shyamalan only good". More to the point, I added, "Everything improved once I gave myself over to Nichols’ vision, rather than trying to categorize the film from my own preconceptions."

Nichols wastes no time getting started with Midnight Special. It feels like we've entered in the middle of the story, and eventually we realize that is exactly what has happened. Nichols assumes his audience will figure things out on their own. It's not that he is purposely obscure, he just doesn't over-explain anything. Midnight Special has the feel of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but where Spielberg piles on the feel-goodness (not a complaint in that case, I love Close Encounters), Nichols shows a family broken to an extent by the special powers of their kid. The aliens in Close Encounters are rarely if ever scary, but the underlying mysterious nature of the plot of Midnight Special means the aliens (or whatever they are) are, at the least, ominous. Nichols has given us an unsettling film, but one that feels satisfying in the end.

Shannon plays a variation on his usual here, and he's as good as ever. I'm always glad to see Kirsten Dunst, and I can't be the only person who thought of Dunst in Fargo, saying "It's just a flying saucer, Ed." Jaeden Martell is suitably awkward as the kid with the powers, and Adam Driver plays against type (the glasses he wears help). Toss in Joel Edgerton, and "That Guy" Bill Camp, and you have a fine ensemble.

Midnight Special is just as good as Take Shelter. I need to see more movies by Nichols.

oscar run: the lobster (yorgos lanthimos, 2015)

I try, but usually fail, to come to a movie cold, with no plot spoilers. In the case of The Lobster, I actually pulled it off. All I knew about it was that it was nominated for an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, and that it had disturbed my friend Charlie very much. (He eventually wrote a piece about it, “Consider the Lobster”.)

Halfway through the movie, I had to pause and go to Facebook, where I wrote the following:

"We all dance by ourselves. That's why we only play electronic music."

Just reached the halfway point of The Lobster. All I knew about it going in was that Charlie Bertsch was very disturbed by it. I didn't realize it was a comedy.

If I’d read up on the film in advance, I would have found that The Lobster was “a black-hearted flat-affect comedy” (Sheila O’Malley), “wickedly funny” (Guy Lodge), a “terrifically twisted satire” (Peter Travers), and an “absurdist romantic tragicomedy” (Stephanie Zacharek). But it was nice being surprised, nice to realize that while The Lobster thinks it is serious, it is also intentionally funny.

I was reminded of other things I’d liked or hated. For the latter, there was Kevin Smith’s Tusk, which disturbed me so much I never wrote about it (madman gradually turns a human into a walrus ... 5/10). The title of The Lobster comes from one of the essential plot points: single people have 45 days to find a mate, or they will be turned into an animal of their own choosing (the main character, played by Colin Ferrell, chooses a lobster, “Because lobsters live for over one hundred years, are blue-blooded like aristocrats, and stay fertile all their lives.”

I was also reminded of the TV series Black Mirror, which I like very much. Like The Lobster, Black Mirror shows dystopian versions of the near future, laced in many cases with sly humor. The TV series is an anthology with standalone episodes, but all revolve to a greater or lesser extent on the technology of our lives, futurized just enough to differentiate slightly from the present. It’s a standard trick of dystopias, to create a world recognizably related to our own.

The performances in The Lobster are designed to throw us off ever so slightly. There’s Colin Farrell, except he doesn’t quite look like Colin Farrell, he’s a bit dumpy (he gained 40 pounds for the part) and decidedly un-sexy. Léa Seydoux may be incapable of un-sexiness (although the same might be said of Farrell before this part), but there is a hard-nosed bad-assery to her here that comes not from action scenes as much as from the determined look on her face, daring you to underestimate her. And Ben Whishaw has established great versatility in his previous roles, so you never know what to expect from him. (He also shares with Seydoux a 007 connection: she was a Bond Girl in Spectre, he is the most recent Q ... another actress from the film, Rachel Weisz, adds a trivia-answer 007 connection as well, since she is married to Daniel Craig.)  Suffice to say, everything is a bit off in The Lobster, so when you realize things are actually very off, that realization sneaks up on you.

So no, I wasn’t disturbed by The Lobster, perhaps because while I was aware Lanthimos had a larger theme in mind, I never connected with it, whatever it was. I just took in the pleasures of the film. I can’t leave without mentioning a couple of my favorite actresses, Olivia Colman (Broadchurch, Fleabag) and Ashley Jensen (Extras, Catastrophe). I wouldn’t go so far as to call The Lobster fun, or say I wanted to watch it again. But for the most part, the fun was what appealed to me.