geezer cinema: poor things (yorgos lanthimos, 2023)

Emma Stone is a much bigger star than I realized. I'd seen six of her movies before Poor Things, and if none of them knocked me over, a few were OK. She has a Best Actress Oscar, she was the highest-paid actress in the world in 2017, and in perhaps the most indicative fact about her popularity, she recently hosted Saturday Night Live for the fifth time:

Poor Things is my third Yorgos Lanthimos film. I liked The Lobster OK, didn't much care for The Favourite. I looked forward to this movie thanks to its mostly positive reviews, and I was rewarded ... the is easily my favorite Lanthimos movie as well as my favorite Emma Stone movie.

Stone is the biggest reason for this. She takes a role that could simply be Oscar bait and makes something wonderful out of it. She plays Bella, the creation of a Frankenstein-like doctor, with a baby's brain inside an adult body. Over the course of the film, Bella's mind grows as her experiences grow, and Stone is spotless throughout, believable as a baby, believable as an adult, with the transition being properly gradual. (Being able to represent the various stages of Bella is the Oscar bait ... making them seem real is the true acting triumph.) Here, she discovers dancing, and her joy is felt by us in the audience, although, in a recurring trope of the film, the man she's with (Mark Ruffalo) tries to control her actions:

The connection to the original Frankenstein tale is clear, and in many ways, Poor Things plays like a feature-length extension of the scene in Bride of Frankenstein where the monster meets the friendly blind man. But Lanthimos (and writer Tony McNamara, and Alasdair Gray, who wrote the novel on which the film is based) is up to more than just paying homage. Bella blossoms, she confronts society and insists on being in command of her life and actions. She does many things we might find abusive (at one point, she becomes a prostitute to earn money), but always she makes her own choices about what she will do. This frustrates the men in her life, who all want to put her in a cage that they can control.

But the film pulls back a bit from making too large a statement. The men tell her that society won't accept her, but most of that society is actually charmed by her. Her behavior, shocking as it often is, is rarely chastised by the elite people she comes across. Thus, Poor Things is a crowd-pleaser, because we see our own pleasure mirrored in some of the characters in the film. Poor Things works as a critique of the patriarchy, but it falls short as a critique of society as a whole (even though Bella eventually adopts socialism).

There will be stiff competition for the Best Actress Oscar ... not only do we have excellent performances from the likes of Margot Robbie, Greta Lee, and Natalie Portman, but Lily Gladstone looks to be entering the Best Actress race despite having more of a supporting role (and Gladstone's may be the best performance by any actor this year). But Emma Stone deserves to be talked about in their company. Of what I have seen, Poor Things is one of the 10 best films of the years.

[Letterboxd list of my top 10 films of 2023]

geezer cinema: the quiet girl (colm bairéad, 2022)

I wanted to like The Quiet Girl. I expected to like The Quiet Girl. And now that I've seen it, I don't have any real complaints. Yet somehow, I was disappointed

Disappointed might not even be the right word, because that implies a committed reaction, whereas I'm more at the point of "that was OK, now what?" First-time director Colm Bairéad shows a good command of the medium. Young Catherine Clinch, who plays the title character, is excellent. The title is appropriate ... she is indeed a quiet girl, and Bairéad gives us a largely quiet movie. I don't know what I would do differently. But the subtleties didn't connect for me. I wasn't bored, but I wasn't affected enough by the quiet plight of the girl.

Perhaps the problem is with me, and The Quiet Girl is just another Not for Steven movie. Certainly it was a success with critics, and it picked up an Oscar nomination. Maybe I'll watch it again sometime and finally see what I'm missing. I wouldn't be surprised if Bairéad makes some good movies in the future, and it's easy to imagine Clinch becoming one of our finer actors. But it mostly left me empty.

geezer cinema: the banshees of inisherin (martin mcdonagh, 2022)

Up to now, I've run hot and cold on the films of writer/director Martin McDonagh. I've seen them all ... there must be something that appeals to me ... but in only one case did I think I was seeing something special (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri). The Banshees of Inisherin lies somewhere in the middle ... it's not great, but it has many strong features.

The acting of the featured characters (played by Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson, Kerry Condon, and Barry Keoghan) is top notch. There is a sensitivity to Farrell and Keoghan's characters in particular ... they are not the sharpest tools in the box, but McDonagh manages to get that across without turning either character into stereotypes. The scenery and cinematography are beautiful (Ben Davis is the cinematographer ... he's done all sorts of things, Marvel movies, Kick-Ass, and a couple of other McDonagh films). And the film's take on male friendship is honest, revealing, and different from the usual bromance.

So why am I hesitant to bestow nothing but praise on The Banshees of Inisherin? I'm not sure I trust McDonagh. He's clever, he comes up with interesting scenarios. But he inserts himself into odd places. Here, it's the whole self-mutilation angle. It's kinda cool, to be honest, when Gleeson threatens to remove his fingers, one by one. When he starts doing it, though, my only question was, why is he cutting off his fingers? And the only answer I could come up with was, McDonagh thought it was kinda cool. (He said in an interview that "I thought it was interesting that an artist would threaten the thing that allows him to make art". Interesting, kinda cool, whatever.)

So The Banshees of Inisherin is another quirky film from Martin McDonagh, and I'm sure his fans will love it. It's getting lots of Oscar talk. And I liked it OK. But I remain unconvinced that McDonagh is one of the great film makers.

geezer cinema: the nest (sean durkin, 2020)

The Nest is Sean Durkin's second feature, after Martha Marcy May Marlene. That movie came out in 2011. Nine years is a long time between movies. His earlier film had a lot to recommend it, especially the acting of Elizabeth Olsen and the rest of the cast. Now, with The Nest, Durkin establishes himself as an excellent director of actors, because the leads here, Jude Law and Carrie Coon, carry the film. It's not a bad film without them, but it's very good with them, and for all their talents, Durkin deserves credit for getting their best out of them.

I don't know which of the two is better. I've been a fan of Coon since The Leftovers, and she's wonderful as a wife, Allison, whose marriage isn't all it seems. Durkin pulls off an interesting trick in The Nest, in that it plays like a horror film but isn't a horror film at all. (In a mixed review, Oliver Jones wrote, "It looks like a horror movie, swims like a horror movie, and quacks like a horror movie, but it isn’t a horror movie. So then what the hell is it?") Coon has shown that she can take any role and find its core, and she wins our sympathy for her situation. This leads to that horror-movie feel ... you wait for something to happen to her, and Durkin, who also wrote the screenplay, plays on our expectations of the genre. This makes us think of Jude Law's husband Rory as the Bad Guy, and yes, Rory has his problems and they are essentially why Allison has problems. But we wait for Rory to turn evil, and this never happens, because the horror trappings are there mainly to distract us from what is ultimately a movie about a marriage and a family.

Much of the film takes place in a huge estate that is far too large for the family of four. Its empty rooms and long hallways add to the gothic feel, once again leading us to anticipate horror. And horror underlies most scenes in The Nest, especially as the film progresses, but it isn't there to provide a base for scares, but instead to place the otherwise straightforward narrative in an unsettling context.

The ending is suitably open. I thought it implied a possible reconciliation for the family, while my wife thought Rory would never change. Nonetheless, I found it charmingly on target that when the kids make breakfast (after many scenes where Rory made it), they make sure to put Pepsi on the table.

geezer cinema: haywire (steven soderbergh, 2011)

Steven Soderbergh seems to be a Geezer mainstay lately ... this is his third movie to be featured in Geezer Cinema, after Contagion and Logan Lucky (all picked by my wife, which is interesting because she doesn't usually pick a movie based on the director). It's the first one starring Gina Carano, and that makes a big difference, because Haywire is as entertaining as those other movies, and Carano is a big reason why that is true.

Soderbergh interests me because he combines two things I find to be rare: he knows what he is doing, and he can please an audience. Some great filmmakers out there know what they are doing, and how to get their vision on the screen, but I don't usually like their movies. And there are crowd-pleasing directors who are workmanlike at best. Soderbergh can do the art film thing as well as anyone, but he's never been afraid of genre pieces, and you would never say he was workmanlike. So films like Logan Lucky and Haywire work on many levels. Haywire admittedly isn't trying for profundity, but you appreciate pretty much everything he does here.

I often write about my pet peeve with modern action films, that they don't bother orienting the viewing. Soderbergh doesn't make that mistake ... all the action scenes are clear (the plot is not so clear, but really, does it matter?). He also plays to the value in his star ... there isn't much gun play, not a lot of car chases, just Carano kicking a lot of ass. Her background (she was once called "the face of women's mixed-martial arts") makes her fight scenes a lot more believable than when, say, little Sarah Michelle Gellar as Buffy steps aside and lets her stunt person do the fighting. Her co-stars (of which more in a minute) all testify to her ability to kick their asses in real life. I haven't seen her in anything else, but she has worked steadily since Haywire. Reading some of her fans, it would appear that some of her later directors didn't understand her appeal ... there's no reason to give her a gun, that's a waste, like giving Jackie Chan a magic tuxedo. Carano is also easy on the eyes, and her acting is good enough (apparently some of her dialogue was dubbed by Laura San Giacomo).

Another plus when Steven Soderbergh is involved is that actors seem to climb over themselves to be in his movies. Despite Haywire being a genre piece with a budget of only $23 million, the cast is amazing: Channing Tatum, Michael Douglas, Antonio Banderas, Ewan McGregor, Michael Fassbender, Bill Paxton. A good portion of those stars get their asses kicked by Carano in the movie.

You go into Haywire expecting an OK trifle, and yeah, it is a trifle, but it's more than OK, and a welcome surprise.

(Letterboxd list of our Geezer Cinema movies.)

geezer cinema/film fatales #73: the rhythm section (reed morano, 2010)

Wow, people really hate this movie. It set some kind of record for worst opening weekend box office for a film playing in 3000+ theaters. The critical consensus at Rotten Tomatoes is 30% approval. Its Metacritic rating is 44/100.

Well, I realize it's damning with faint praise, but The Rhythm Section doesn't suck. Blake Lively is excellent (and in fairness, many of the critics who hated the film praised her performance). There's nothing special going on ... it's not the kind of movie you are dying to see, nor is it the kind of movie you'll want to push on your friends. But it's OK, certainly worth a look on cable on a Saturday afternoon.

Some people were disappointed, which accounts for at least part of the problem. If you had no positive thoughts beforehand, you wouldn't care if it stunk. But people like Blake Lively, and Reed Morano, who began as a cinematographer and who has an Emmy for her work directing The Handmaid's Tale, has a mild buzz about her. Yet The Rhythm Section doesn't quite succeed ... it's got too much character development to work as an action picture, but that development isn't all that interesting. There are a couple of good action scenes, both involving Lively, one fighting Jude Law and one with her driving in a car chase. It falls far short of greatness ... honestly, it falls short of goodness. But there are worse movies in the world, and I remain puzzled why The Rhythm Section is taking such abuse.

(Here is a letterboxd list of Film Fatales movies.)

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.

what i watched last week

Room (Lenny Abrahamson, 2015). Room is driven by the acting. This might be stating the obvious, since Brie Larson won a Best Actress Oscar. More to the point, though, Room did not win the other three categories (Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay) it was nominated in. Room is absorbing, but I don’t know that I’d recommend it to anyone who didn’t like the acting part of movies. The claustrophobia of the room is effectively presented, and the scenes where the two protagonists return to the “real” world are properly heartfelt. But too much of the time, the movie felt to me as a trick as much as a film. The second half of the movie, when the trick is gone, is ordinary ... OK, but ordinary. Larson, a favorite of mine from Short Term 12 and United States of Tara, is quite good. I only saw one of the other four Best Actress nominees, so I can’t compare them all. But Larson isn’t an embarrassment to the Academy. Probably the biggest mistake is that he co-star, Jacob Tremblay, get a nomination. He’s at least as good as Larsen. #396 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century.

City of Hope (John Sayles, 1991). The kind of movie the word “sprawling” was made for, City of Hope has a few dozen “main” characters and several intertwining plots about big city corruption. The cast is equally sprawling ... there’s an Oscar winner (Chris Cooper, Adaptation.) and a few Oscar nominees (Angela Bassett, John Sayles, and David Strathairn). There is a who’s who of B-listers and “hey, it’s that guy”s ... I don’t mean they aren’t any good, only that they are better known for indies and TV ... Vincent Spano, Tony Lo Bianco, Joe Morton, Frankie Faison, Gloria Foster, Tony Denison, Kevin Tighe, Barbara Williams, Joe Grifasi, Gina Gershon, Jude Ciccolella, Lawrence Tierney. It is quite involving, and, as Roger Ebert noted at the time, stylistically similar to Slacker. And the Paul Haggis movie Crash owes a lot of City of Hope. I noted when the latter came out that it might have been better as a television series ... the same might be said for City of Hope, which could certainly maintain interest over a longer period of time, given the large cast of characters. As with so many of Sayles’ films, I liked it but didn’t go crazy over it. (Lone Star is the one exception to that rule.) I think I probably overrated Crash when it came out, and I feel now like I prefer City of Hope, so I’ll give it a rating that reflects my recent thoughts.

what i watched last week

Five Minutes of Heaven (Oliver Hirschbiegel, 2009). In the midst of all these requests I’ve been watching, I found this one the old fashioned way: looking for something to pass an hour and a half, I chose the first short movie that popped up, knowing nothing about it. Not a bad choice, with Liam Neeson and James Nesbitt doing some fine acting in a story contextually about The Troubles, but which is ultimately more a character study than a political tract. It feels like an adapted stage play (which it is not), which is fine since the point of the film is to examine the characters played by Neeson and Nesbitt, not to show off fancy film making. Nesbitt externalizes in a way that plays well off of Neeson’s more silent, tortured presentation, and Anamaria Marinca makes the most of her small part.

Winter’s Bone (Debra Granik, 2010). I’m using this film in a class I’m teaching this spring, so I gave it a second look. I liked it very much the first time I saw it, and I didn’t change my mind this time around. The film was a big critical favorite (gathering a 90/100 on Metacritic, with 36 positive reviews, 2 mixed, and no negative). The “worst” rating from anyone I read regularly came from Stephanie Zacharek, whose review was titled “Winter’s Bone a Little Too Pleased With Its Own Folky Bleakness”. She felt the “characters veer too close to broad caricature”, but still finds Jennifer Lawrence “impressively quiet and controlled”. I think it’s the best fiction film I’ve seen from 2010, and I thought Lawrence should have won the Best Actress Oscar over Natalie Portman for Black Swan. Lawrence was a revelation when I first saw the film. I knew nothing about her. Things have changed in just two years: as the star of The Hunger Games, Lawrence is poised to become one of the top stars of her day, and she’s only 21 years old. Thankfully, she doesn’t seem to have reached such a pinnacle at an early age for the usual reasons (great-looking, panders to young males), but because she is giving excellent performances. It doesn’t hurt that she’s great-looking, of course, but Winter’s Bone buries her traditional good looks in grit and mounds of cold-weather gear, allowing her to be a special kind of beautiful, strong and centered. Perhaps Portman gives us a peek at what Lawrence might have in store: three movies in the Star Wars franchise, lots of indie films, the lead role in an action picture, and ultimately an Oscar. #48 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 250 films of the 21st century.

what i watched last week

I Am Love (Luca Guadagnino, 2009). This movie recalls many films from the past. The presence of Gabriele Ferzetti and the setting of rich people being rich made me think of L’Avventura, Tilda Swinton says in an interview on the Blu-ray that she and director Luca Guadagnino thought it was Visconti on acid, and many reviewers mentioned Douglas Sirk. I’d say the critics came closest … it soon became clear that I Am Love was nothing like Antonioni’s classic, and while I can see the Visconti reference, I’m not sure Swinton needed the “on acid” qualifier. But the lushness of the photography, the ripeness of the music, and the submerged sexuality are all reminiscent of Sirk. If, like me, you think Tilda Swinton can do no wrong, you’ll admire her work here (she plays a Russian who marries into an Italian family, and apparently, she didn’t speak either Italian or Russian before making the film, so she learned them both, and then spoke Italian with a Russian accent). She’s an outsider, because she’s Russian, because the family into which she marries is insular, but really, all you have to do is cast Tilda Swinton and you have your outsider … her ethereal looks are something more than human. Nominated for an Oscar for Best Costume Design. #231 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 250 films of the 21st century, which is stretching it a bit. 

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (F.W. Murnau, 1927). A lot of firsts for this movie. It was the first movie to use the Fox Movietone sound system … it isn’t a talkie, but there is a synchronized soundtrack and the occasional sound effect. Janet Gaynor’s work here and in two other movies earned her the very first Academy Award for Best Actress. The film itself won the Best Picture, Unique and Artistic Production award … there were two Best Picture awards that first year, the only year that this particular award was given, making Sunrise the once and forever King of Best Uniquely Artistic Film. Even now, it gets “firsts” … it was the first silent film to be released on Blu-ray. But is it any good? It’s a hard film to evaluate on one viewing, since there are a lot of touches that can be appreciated once you seen it once and get the basic “plot.” There are some stunning sequences, and it’s fascinating to see Murnau’s vision set free in Hollywood with a sizable budget. The plot is Bunyanesque (John, not Paul), with characters named The Man and The Wife and The Woman from the City, and that’s not a good thing. And many of the trend-setting Murnau touches are ordinary to us, more than 80 years later. Ah, but those touches! #12 on the TSPDT list of the 1000 best films of all time.

Hunger (Steve McQueen, 2008). A remarkable, ambitious film that I can’t recommend to everyone, Hunger is brutal and graphic, artful and unique, with at least one scene destined to become a classic. It is a film about the hunger strike of Bobby Sands, but this is definitely a case where the simple description leads you nowhere. Sands doesn’t show up until a third of the way through, and the hunger strike itself takes place only in the final third. Some of the artistic decisions don’t seem to have a point to them, but the overall feel of director Steve McQueen’s work here suggests he got exactly what he wanted from Hunger. Since he succeeds wildly on most levels, he earns the benefit of the doubt. The camerawork throughout is fascinating … perhaps too much, it may draw our attention to itself … with a mostly static camera. The showpiece is a long, medium-shot, one-take conversation between Sands and a priest that goes on for about 15 minutes. In that scene, Sands presents his case for a hunger strike, and the priest tries to dissuade the prisoner. Much of the film is presented in a rather dispassionate way … what we see inspires deep emotions from the audience, to be sure, but somehow McQueen maintains a certain distance from the material. #129 on the TSPDT list of the 250 best films of the 21st century.

Imitation of Life (Douglas Sirk, 1959). I’m not as excited about Sirk as are his aficionados, but I’ve enjoyed some of his pictures. This one, though, isn’t really one of them. It’s recognizably his, the way that Man’s Favorite Sport? is recognizably Howard Hawks. That wasn’t enough for me. The best thing about the movie is Susan Kohner as the African-American trying to pass as white. There is an edge to her work that plays well off the icy beauty of Lana Turner and the too-perfect mom played by Juanita Moore. #233 on the TSPDT list of the top 1000 films of all time.