coco (lee unkrich and adrian molina, 2017)

Coco is a multi-award winning film, including an Oscar for Best Animated Feature. It filled absences in many of my "Blind Spot" Letterboxd lists of popular movies I haven't seen. It is a landmark in Latino cinema, "the first film with a nine-figure budget to feature an all-Latino principal cast." I am pretty picky about animated features ... I love Miyasaki, like a lot of Pixar films, but am not a fan of a lot of the animated musicals that are ever-present. Coco comes from Pixar, and it is one of their best.

I watched in Spanish ... dubbing for animated films doesn't bother me, but ordinarily I'd have opted for English. But I knew they had made a specific Spanish-language version of Coco, and given its setting in Mexico and its emphasis on Mexican culture, Spanish seemed like the proper choice. (The only voice actor to appear in both versions is Gael García Bernal.) I can't make comparisons, but at the least, I was very satisfied with the Spanish voices.

I was also satisfied with the songs, which is often where I check out. I don't know if it was the way the Spanish-language versions felt less intrusive or something else, but I didn't gag. Meanwhile, the way Coco shows not just that Family Is Good but that Family Is Difficult was done in a pretty powerful way. Honestly, I didn't expect to like Coco ... now I can't wait to watch with my grandson.


simon of the desert (luis buñuel, 1965)

This is the twenty-sixth 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 26 is called "Transcendental Style in Film Week".

In 1972, Paul Schrader wrote a book on the wave of slow, contemplative art house cinema entitled "Transcendental style in film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer". In it, he examines the three titular directors' works and how their films apply a certain style that seems to transcend language. The original book focuses on the directors named, though in 2018, Schrader released a updated version with a new introduction that applies his framework to the 50+ years of cinema following the original publishing. Feel free to select a film from either group of films.

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen mentioned in Paul Schrader's "Transcendental Style in Film"Here is the original list of films and here is the list that includes all of the films mentioned in the new introduction.

I'm not sure how closely Simon of the Desert fits into a compendium of slow cinema. After all, it's only 45 minutes long ... how slow could it be? It's also interesting to consider what Buñuel is telling us about contemplative film (or anything else). The titular Simon spends his time atop a column, trying to connect with God through his ascetic life and near-constant examination of himself and the world. In short, Simon's life is contemplative to an extreme. But despite his efforts, his life is also meaningless ... at the least, his attempts to commune with God do not lead to enlightenment, and his actions are never as helpful as might be hoped. (Early on, he cures a man whose hands were cut off because he was a thief, restoring the hands to their original state. The man immediately smacks one of his kids upside the head.) If Simon is any example, Buñuel thinks the contemplative life is worthy of our disdain.

I'm surely looking at this wrong. No matter that I'm doing the Challenge, it doesn't really matter how the film fits into Schrader's framework. So from here, I'll try to take Simon of the Desert as its own work.

There are two stories about why it is so short. One is that the money ran out, so Buñuel came up with a quick (nonsensical) ending and finished. The other comes from Silvia Pinal, who plays Satan. She claims that the film was originally to be part of a three-piece anthology film, but that the concept didn't pan out (she blames herself) and so Buñuel just released his short movie as is. In any event, the ending is indeed nonsensical (it takes place in the 5th century, but at the end it jumps unexplained into the 1960s). Buñuel's work is full of things that don't make obvious sense, so I don't think the end hurts the film that much. But it is an abrupt break ... it's not like the movie is full of time shifts, just the one at the end.

Pinal makes a great Satan, because she is trying to make Simon give up his mission, and she exudes the kind of sexuality that clearly affects Simon. Does she break him down? It's hard to say ... if you count the sudden trip forward, when she and Simon are in a discotheque, perhaps she has succeeded. But ultimately, Buñuel is less interested in Simon's persistence and more interested in showing what a foolish mission it is. This is not a religious movie ... it's anti-religion.

I've liked every Buñuel film I have seen, including Simon of the Desert, with Los Olvidados at the top. Simon of the Desert strikes me as lesser Buñuel. #912 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time.

[Letterboxd list of Buñuel films I've seen]


godzilla: king of the monsters (michael dougherty, 2019)

I've been impressed enough by the previews for Godzilla vs. Kong that I decided I needed to prep. I'd seen the first film in the series, Godzilla, and liked it a lot. I began to catchup recently by watching Kong: Skull Island, which was a bit of a drop but still entertaining. Now I've seen Godzilla: King of the Monsters, and the drop is a lot bigger.

This one brings out a bunch of the Japanese originals ... Mothra, Ghidorah, Rodan, and of course Godzilla, all of whom are listed in the credits as playing themselves. This is more fun if you're a fan, although Rodan seems less important to the plot. Michael Dougherty shows his love for the genre, and the film isn't condescending. It's just not very good.

We're invited to care about the characters, and the cast is impressive. But the characters never get deeper than their stereotypical base: family struggling over events in the earlier movie, Japanese scientists with more understanding of the monsters, smart-ass American scientist, Charles Dance as a bad guy. Hey, these are stereotypes for a reason ... they make it easy for us to slide into the movie. But when we are asked to actually care about them, to react emotionally to them, I didn't care and didn't get emotional.

Perhaps it's a bit of a surprise, given the all-star cast, but the standout is someone making her first appearance in a feature film: Millie Bobby Brown, who had already established herself via the television series Stranger Things. Brown only just turned 17, but you can see she'll have a solid future. She isn't just playing the cute factor. Indeed, Brown is the one person who convinced me her character was worthy of an emotional response from the audience.

As for the action, it's fine, as expected, although during the climactic battle, they kept switching attention to the humans when all I wanted to see was Godzilla going up against Ghidorah. Truth is, the action in the Godzilla vs. Kong trailer excited me more.


redes (fred zimmerman & emilio gómez muriel, 1936)

This is the twenty-second 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 22 is called the "Golden Age of Mexican Cinema Week".

From The Austrian Film Museum:

"Beginning in the early 1930s and continuing for a quarter-century, Mexico was home to one of the world’s most colorful and diverse film cultures: not many other countries could claim a comparable range of production, diversity of genres and number of master filmmakers. The excellence of Mexican cinema was founded on its commercial strength – Mexico supplied all of the Spanish-speaking markets in Central and South America, and delivered several box-office successes in the United States as well. During the thirties, the country also became an important refuge for European exiles. Numerous filmmakers and craftsmen had their own (usually semi-secret) Mexican Period, and German-born Alfredo B. Crevenna became Mexico’s most prolific director. In the 1940s, few other film cultures were quite as potent."

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen from the Golden Age of Mexican Cinema. Try looking here or here for starters.

Another win for the Challenge. I had only seen one film in either of the suggested links (Los Olvidados), and in fact have been remiss in watching Mexican films in general (my favorite being Y Tu Mamá También from Alfonso Cuarón).

Redes has a complicated history, and is perhaps better called an international picture than simply a Mexican film. On the one hand, the film was commissioned by the left-wing Mexican government. There was Mexican co-director Emilio Gómez Muriel ... he went on to direct close to 80 movies, but Redes was his first. Redes was filmed at a small fishing town in Mexico, using a mostly non-professional cast. The score by Silvestre Revueltas, his first, is considered to be a great success, although I confess I found it overbearing at times. On the other hand, the film began as an idea from left-wing photographer Paul Strand, who was from Brooklyn. Fred Zinnemann, an Austrian who had moved to New York, was brought in to co-direct, although he didn't speak Spanish so Gómez Muriel worked with the actors. Strand and Zinnemann cited influences like Eisenstein and Flaherty, and Redes is often compared to Italian neorealism, which hadn't happened yet. So Redes is unmistakably Mexican, but with influences from many places.

Redes tells the story of fishermen who are exploited by the rich, and it's clear what side the film is on. It never looks amateurish ... there is a lot of talent behind the camera, and the non-professional actors are mostly appealingly natural. It's a small picture, to be sure, but its ambitions are large.


film fatales #83: zama (lucrecia martel, 2017)

Lucretia Martel takes her time between fiction features ... Zama was her first in nine years, and only her fourth since 2001. But she's busy ... between 2001 and the present, she has also made more than half a dozen shorts and a feature documentary. Zama was highly anticipated.

I wrote about her La Ciénaga,"You need to settle into its rhythms, you need to accept that Martel isn't going to hold your hand, but there's a difference between wanting the audience to be uncomfortable and making a movie that did not connect with an audience. Scenes begin and end in the middle, you aren't always immediately sure where you are, but you aren't lost." Much the same could be said about Zama.

It helps to approach Zama without trying to squeeze it into pre-conceived notions. The more you try to figure out what is going on, the less you'll get out of the movie. Which isn't to suggest Zama is too obscure for enjoyment. It's just that its pleasures have less to do with narrative thrust and more to do with the feel of each scene. The title character is an official functionary somewhere in Argentina. He wants to leave ... he spends much of the movie trying to facilitate his release ... his desire is understandable, but Zama becomes something of a comical figure because his hopes are never going to be fulfilled, and at times, he seems to be the only person that doesn't realize this. The arc of his story is probably the easiest thing to latch onto, but Martel isn't really concerned with audience ease. Meanwhile, the subject of imperialism wavers between text and subtext, as the nobility exists on the backs of slaves it barely acknowledges.

Zama is comical, although his trials finally become too extreme for us to laugh at. And life for the slaves is not funny at all. Martel effectively blends subtle commentary and absurd bureaucracy, all the while condemning the ruling class for their perfidies. It's a fine movie for a patient audience. #61 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century.

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


film fatales #77: even the rain (icíar bollaín, 2010)

Another movie for "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20", "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 out of order. Week 23 is called "Gael García Bernal Week".

Gael García Bernal is perhaps one of the best performers working today that doesn't get nearly the amount of attention he deserves. And though his most well known performance is in an animated film, one needs to see this man perform in live-action to get the full effect. So, give some love to one of yours truly's favorite actors.

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen film starring Gael Garcia Bernal.

Even the Rain is a complex film that might seem fairly straightforward at first glance. Bernal plays a Mexican director, Sebastián, making a film with a Spanish producer about Columbus "discovering" America. They film in Cochabamba, Bolivia, for the usual reasons: it's cheaper.

It soon becomes apparent that the film Sebastián is making about how Columbus exploited the native population in many ways is replicating that exploitation. The people of Cochabamba go on a general strike (this is based on true events), and Sebastián is torn between support for the people and the problems he will have making his film (one of his primary actors turns out to be a leader of the revolt).

There are layers here. Sebastián wants to make his movie, he doesn't want to exploit anyone, but it happens anyway. And we in the audience can't help but wonder just how much the creators of Even the Rain paid the extras who came from the local area. It's not really fair ... they spoke to this in interviews ... but it's hard not to imagine Even the Rain following a similar path to Sebastián's movie. Unfair, but obvious without context. The filmmakers speak to this:

Meanwhile, much of Even the Rain is effective. Juan Carlos Aduviri, who plays the actor/revolutionary in his screen debut, comes from El Alto, next to La Paz. He grabs the screen ... it's believable that Sebastián wants him for his movie.

The parallels between the filmmakers and Columbus are interesting, although they are pressed on us a bit too hard. And I really have to believe that the filmmakers did right by the people. Perhaps the power of Even the Rain is that it raises such questions in the first place.

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


blade runner 2049 (denis villeneuve, 2017)

What to make of Denis Villeneuve? I've now seen six of his movies, loved one (Incendies), liked three others very much, and didn't care for two of them, including Blade Runner 2049. I'd start with the length of his films ... Blade Runner 2049 is the longest at 163 minutes ... except I also didn't like the shortest one (Enemy, 91 minutes). So it's probably not the length, but recency bias steps in here ... Blade Runner 2049 is way too long. Don't take my word for it ... Ridley Scott said he would have cut out half an hour (of course, he would have subsequently re-edited it several times) (that's a joke, son), and Villeneuve agreed that it was too long, adding that he had made "the most expensive art house movie in cinema history". Honestly, that's what I liked best about Blade Runner 2049, that someone had given Villeneuve 150 million dollars and he came up with this movie. I can only imagine what the studio must have thought when they saw the final product.

Blade Runner 2049 moves so slowly it's like a Hollywood version of a Tarkovsky film. And not one of his good ones. There are a couple of plot twists that wake up the audience, and it's nice when Harrison Ford finally turns up. The film looks great. The legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins won an overdue Oscar on his 13th try. Having just finished binge-watching Halt and Catch Fire, I enjoyed the brief appearances of Mackenzie Davis. I'm running out of good things to say.

One thing that always disappointed me about the original Blade Runner was that I thought it missed a lot of what Philip K. Dick brought to the novel. I don't know if this is a good sign or a bad one, but I never gave any thought to Dick while watching 2049. It's point of reference was always the Ridley Scott movie, not Dick's book.

I admire Villeneuve's willingness to make an expensive art house film. I just didn't care much for the result. Critics disagree ... it's currently #692 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century.


silent light (carlos reygadas, 2007)

Last year, Emre Çağlayan published Poetics of Slow Cinema: Nostalgia, Absurdism, Boredom, which I am guessing grew out of his PhD thesis, Screening Boredom: The History and Aesthetics of Slow Cinema. You can find a list of 258 "Slow Cinema" movies included in the thesis on Letterboxd. I have mentioned on several occasions here that the idea of "slow cinema" seems far out of my area of interest. I have also noted that I often like those movies when I see them. Thus, I have seen 22 of the 258 films on that Letterboxd list, and I liked 18 of them, including 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, which made my 50 Favorite Movies list a few years ago, and Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce 1080 Bruxelles, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, and Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, all of which I loved. It would seem I need to do two things: lighten up on the criticisms of slow cinema, and watch a lot more slow cinema movies.

Well, Silent Light marks the 23rd film from the list that I have seen, and I can safely say that I still only liked 18 of them. Silent Light falls into the category of films where I appreciate when a film seems to have turned out how the filmmaker wanted it to, but where I nonetheless didn't like it. I'm always trying to think of a catchy name for this category ... maybe "Your Mileage May Vary"? Because I don't want to criticize Carlos Reygadas for doing what he wanted to do, and to the extent I know what he wanted, I have no problems, but I'm still unenthusiastic about the result.

Silent Light runs 136 minutes. I paused it twice, ostensibly to pee, but that was just an excuse to break the boredom for a bit. Reygadas uses non-professional actors, and it works well. The movie is also gorgeous to look at. But ... the entire film is not in real time (this isn't High Noon), but individual scenes are played in real time. Working from memory (no, I'm not going to watch it again to see if I'm right), the film opens with a beautiful long take that goes from the stars to a lovely sunrise to a pretty landscape, then goes inside a house where a Mennonite family is saying grace before breakfast. "Saying" is a bit of a misnomer ... everyone seems to be praying silently, and this goes on for a couple of more minutes until the father finally says "Amen". After which, the family eats cereal. In real time.

So ... "Your Mileage May Vary", but I was pretty bored. #50 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century, and #580 on their all-time list.

Here's an interview with Reygadas. He deserves the last word. (There is a Silent Light spoiler, so beware.)


what i watched last week

The Exterminating Angel (Luis Buñuel, 1962). A rich couple throw a post-opera dinner party at their enormous mansion. A shot of them entering and going up a large staircase is repeated; you think you accidentally hit the reverse button. A small bear a some goats are wandering around inside the mansion. Almost every one of the servants finds a reason to leave, which pisses off the rich hostess. After eating, the party guests gather in a large room to continue the party’s pleasures. For some reason, they find they can’t leave the room. There are no visible reasons why they are stuck in the room. There’s a small bathroom where they can use a toilet, and that’s about it. The longer they stay in the room, the more their true tendencies come out, and trust me, they aren’t good tendencies. In the seemingly happy ending, they escape into a church. Except now they can’t get out of the church. Yes, it’s just another Buñuel movie, one of his best. He had full creative control for the only time in his Mexican period. The surreal touches are slight, just enough to throw you off. The attacks on the upper class aren’t as blatant as they could be. You could, in fact, watch The Exterminating Angel and think it merely an odd, perplexing dramedy. Therein lies the film’s greatness … Buñuel sneaks up on you this time. Only gradually do we realize that the breakdown of social niceties that occurs when the rich are trapped in the room is, for them, akin to the breakdown of civilization itself. If we are to believe the IMDB, the film was banned in Russia “because the idea of people not being allowed to ‘leave a party’ was considered offensive and anti-government.” (It almost doesn’t matter if this anecdote is true or false … it feels like it belong in a Buñuel, to be sure.) #151 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. I’d double bill this with his later film, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, where instead of being stuck in a room, we have characters who go where they want but can’t seem to get anything to eat.

Sans Soleil (Chris Marker, 1983).

Man Bites Dog (Rémy Belvaux, André Bonzel and Benoît Poelvoorde, 1992).