sacro gra (gianfranco rosi, 2013)

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." Week 17 is called "Golden Lion Week":

One of the three major film festival awards (the other two being the Palme d'Or at Cannes and the Goldener Bär, or Golden Bear from the Berlin IFF), the Golden Lion, or the Leone d'Oro, is the highest prize a film can receive at the Venice International Film Festival. Introduced in 1949, the Golden Lion represents the Lion of Saint Mark, which had appeared on the flag of the Republic of Venice when it was a sovereign state, and is one of the highest awards achievable in the film industry.

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen Golden Lion winning film.

One good thing about the Letterboxd Challenge is that I see movies that aren't ordinarily in my wheelhouse. In fact, I'd never heard of Sacro GRA before.

One bad thing about the Letterboxd Challenges is that I sometimes see movies I don't like. And now that I've not only heard of Sacro GRA but seen it, I can say I didn't like it.

Gianfranco Rosi spent two years filming on the Grande Raccordo Anulare, a highway that encircles Rome. Another 8 months were spent editing. The result was a series of short vignettes of various people who live in the vicinity. They all get multiple appearances, but honestly, I didn't learn anything from the third time as I did on the first. The EMT guy was nice, the father/daughter living in a small room were OK, the guy who fished for eels was a guy who fished for eels, the guy who checked for bug infestation in palm trees was obsessively scientific. Any one of these people might have made an interesting half-hour short. Spreading their "stories" over 90 minutes without spending more than 10 or 15 minutes on any particular person results in a film that is barely worth saying awake for. I have no idea why it won a Golden Lion.


parasite (charles band, 1982)

After a two-week break, we return to "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." Week 16 is called "The Future Was Then Week":

To quote the late, great Phillip J. Fry, "time makes fools of us all." And never is that more the case for this set of movies we got here. At once considered futuristic, these films now lie in the odd limbo of being both in the future (from the time of its release) AND the past (as of now). Take a look and see where these filmmakers were spot-on about the future, and where they way, way off.

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen film set in the "future". My Films with Past Futures list might help.

An awful piece of junk, although I need to cut it a little slack. It was made in 3D, and I was watching it in 2D on my TV. At times, I could see what they were trying to do, not just with the usual stuff jumping at us from the screen, but also by the use of space in ways that likely looked pretty good in 3D. Also, the version on Amazon was reframed from the original 2.35:1, and you could tell. In other words, nothing about how I watched the movie did it any favors.

But still, it sucked, an odd melange of Alien and Road Warrior, which came out not too long before Parasite. There was little attempt to create a world ... just a parasitic being invading people's bodies. It was a post-apocalyptic story, but that fact was rarely mentioned.

Some recognizable names participated. It was the second feature for Demi Moore. It was the third feature directed by Charles Band, who has a bit of a cult following. The cast included Cherie Currie from The Runaways, cheapie legend Cheryl "Rainbeaux" Smith for the scene of a topless woman, and musical legend Vivian Blaine from Guys and Dolls. Best of all was future four-time Oscar winner Stan Winston creating the effects for the parasites.

Finally, a trivia note: on a "Spill Your Guts or Fill Your Guts" segment on James Corden's show last October, Demi Moore said this was the worst movie she'd ever been in.


the chosen (jeremy kagan, 1981)

This is the latest film I have watched in "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." Week 15 is called "Jewish Cinema Week":

In the past, the week that led into the holiday break has been a Christmas week and a nondescript holiday week, but this time I decided to put the spotlight on a different major holiday, that being the Jewish celebration of Hanukkah. Though there aren't too many films focused on the holiday itself, here we will pay tribute to those of Jewish decent by viewing the cinema that is meant to showcase their experiences.

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen film from either shalomtowne's Jewish Cinema 101 list or from The Projected Image: The Jewish Experience on Film list.

(One popular choice for this week was Ida.)

Based on a popular 1967 novel from Chaim Potok, The Chosen exposed me to a culture about which I am far too ignorant, Hasidic Judaism, which made it a fine selection for the Challenge, which should regularly expose me to films I might otherwise miss.. It featured a strong performance by Rod Steiger, who didn't chew the scenery too much. The recreation of  New York in the mid-late 1940s seemed accurate enough. The film was made with care, and it's hard for me to pin down why I was mostly unimpressed.

But the novelty of the setting didn't do enough to hide the fact that The Chosen was, in essence, a fairly standard story about two young men from different backgrounds, how they came together, split apart, and reached a final understanding with each other and with their fathers. There is nothing wrong with that story, but neither is there anything new, so the film relies on the depiction of different forms of Judaism to supply uniqueness. Which only goes so far, for while the setting is important, it is never as important as the story of the two young men, and that story just isn't all that interesting.


film fatales #69: le bonheur (agnès varda, 1965)

This is the latest film I have watched in "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." Week 14 is called "Masters of the West Week: Agnes Varda and Chantal Akerman":

Usually these categories consist of only one "master", but since we're celebrating an anniversary, I say let's take it up a notch. That's right, ladies and gentleman, this time around you get to choose from the filmography of not just one essential, inspirational French director, but TWO.

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen film directed by either Agnes Varda or Chantal Akerman.

Among the films people selected for this week's challenge were Akerman's Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce 1080 Bruxelles, and several by Varda: Cléo from 5 to 7Faces PlacesThe Gleaners & I, and Vagabond. I went with Le Bonheur for the obvious reason that I hadn't yet seen it.

"Le bonheur" translates to "happiness", and rarely has there been a title that so straddled the line between straightforward and ironic. Le Bonheur is a pretty film, perhaps even excessively so, and with Mozart on the soundtrack, it all seems quite happy indeed. There's the husband and wife and two kids, one boy, one girl. Their lives seem bright ... they often picnic in nature, he likes his job as a carpenter, she's a happy homemaker and mother. None of it feels ironic at first, although I'm sure a second viewing would change that reaction. Midway through the movie, the husband begins an affair. He is happier than ever. He tells his mistress he loves her and she makes him happy, but that he also loves his wife, she also makes him happy, and she was there first. The wife notices her husband seems happier than ever. The film is overwhelmed with happiness.

Then something happens that puts a stop to the happiness. You knew it couldn't last.

Except by the end of the film, the mistress has essentially replaced the wife, and the central nuclear family is happy once again.

The husband is clearly a solipsist ... he is happy when he can do what he wants, and assumes his happiness is everyone's happiness. Varda doesn't take his side, exactly, but ultimately, she doesn't take sides at all. Le Bonheur is disconcerting because we keep waiting for someone to pass judgement on what we are seeing, and it never happens.

Here is how the film begins:

The husband is played by Jean-Claude Drouot. The wife and children are non-professionals played by Drouot's real-life wife and kids. There is a naturalness to the performance of Claire Drouot as the wife, but she never seems amateurish.

#925 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time.

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)


film fatales #67: paris is burning (jennie livingston, 1990)

This is the latest film I have watched in "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." Week 13 is called "New Queer Cinema Week":

The second in a series celebrating challenges from past seasons, this challenge comes to us from kurt k's Counterfeit Letterboxd Season Challenge: 2016-17. The original description:

"Pride season is finally starting! This is a week that I know a couple of people (including me) have wanted. New Queer Cinema is a movement that started mainly around the late 80's to early 90's, where a bunch of LGBTQ film makers started creating independent movies that often dealt with rejection of a hetero-normative and cis-normative lifestyle. These movies don't sum up every LGBTQ person's experience, but I would say that it speaks to us."

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen New Queer Cinema film.

Paris Is Burning is a documentary about balls held by the LGBTQ community. It was filmed in the late-80s, and represents the ball culture of that time. To the extent it is an accurate representation, it serves as an important artifact of the culture. It is an artifact, though ... director Jennie Livingston was not part of the culture herself, although she was/is an out lesbian. She and her film are sympathetic to the people she shows us, but it matters for some that she's an observer rather than a participant, always the interviewer, never the interviewee.

Paris Is Burning celebrates the balls and performers. They are presented as artists who take pride in their work. Of course, the balls aren't the whole world, and when the outside world marks its spots, the film turns tragic, most specifically in the case of Venus Xtravaganza, who is one of the most disarmingly lovely people in the movie. She talks about her dreams, and also about the things she does to survive (prostitution being the main thing). We learn near the end of the film that she was murdered, a case that has never been solved.

Many of the people strive to emulate the straight world in their performances, which automatically has an ironic distancing effect. But Venus also says, "I would like to be a spoiled rich white girl. They get what they want, whenever they want it. They don't have to really struggle with finances, nice things, nice clothes, and they don't have to have that as a problem."

Livingston has never released another feature that she directed, although she has made shorts, taught, won fellowships, and was a consultant on the TV series Pose.

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)


a woman's face (gustaf molander, 1938)

This is the latest film I have watched in "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." Week 12 is called "Classic Performers: Ingrid Bergman":

A major name in both American and European cinema, Ingrid Bergman is often considered one of the greatest performers to have ever graced the screen. From notable American classics like Casablanca and Spellbound to her work with Roberto Rossellini in Italian neorealist mainstays such as Stromboli and Europa '51, Bergman filled the screen with emotion that is hard to be matched.

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen film starring Ingrid Bergman.

In 1936, Molander and Bergman worked together on the original Intermezzo. Two years later, at 23, Bergman was in A Woman's Face, a silly bit of nonsense, from a French play, about a woman with a scarred face who changes from a bad person to a good one when she receives an operation that turns her face into Ingrid Bergman's. You have to admire the dedication it took to make Ingrid Bergman ugly for a good portion of the picture.

Ingridface

Bergman does an excellent job of turning her ugliness (she was burned in a fire as a child) outward into a life of crime in a blackmail ring. She also does what she can to make her transition from bad to good seem believable ... it's almost matter-of-fact in the script, but Bergman makes the change gradual and she connects emotionally with the audience. It's also fun to see how Bergman is allowed to be physically big ... at times she seems like the tallest person in the room, and even when her face is disfigured, she commands the screen. It's interesting how the "ugly" woman is always trying to hide her face but uses her body to dominate.

Remade in English a few years later with Joan Crawford.


music friday/film fatales #65: who took the bomp? le tigre on tour (kerthy fix, 2010)

This is the latest film I have watched in "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." Week 11 is called "Oscilloscope Laboratories Week":

Initially, I had this week marked down as A24 week, yet I feel they already get plenty of attention, especially 'round these Letterboxd parts. So, I figured I would shine the spotlight on a smaller studio developing and distributing some lesser known, yet still quality films from creators in it for the art of storytelling.

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

If this Challenge is supposed to be a learning experience, than there may be no better example than this week, for I had no idea what Oscilloscope Laboratories was. The company was co-founded in 2008 by the late Beastie Boy, Adam Yauch. It seems to be best defined by a list of its productions, and it turns out, I had seen five of their movies: Wendy and Lucy, The Messenger, Exit Through the Gift Shop, Wuthering Heights (2011), and We Need to Talk About Kevin. The timing was good for Who Took the Bomp?, since I had spent the weekend attending Sleater-Kinney concerts, and Kathleen Hanna of Le Tigre was a charter member of the iconic riot grrrl band Bikini Kill. Who Took the Bomp? offers an intriguing backstage look at Le Tigre, as they took their final world tour in the mid-2000s. There is some strong concert footage, but what adds a special feel to the film is that Le Tigre, as a band and as individuals, are pretty funny. They are also dead serious ... this was a band rooted in left-wing politics, especially addressing gender and LGBTQ issues. It's a short, instructive, and entertaining film, and if it isn't much more than that, in the moment that feels like enough.

Here is one of Le Tigre's videos, "TKO":

And here, something from Who Took the Bomp?:

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)


lessons of darkness (werner herzog, 1992)

This is the latest film I have watched in "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." Week 10 is called "Cinéma-vérité Week":

From Wikipedia:

"Cinéma vérité (French: [sinema veʁite]; 'truthful cinema') is a style of documentary filmmaking, invented by Jean Rouch, inspired by Dziga Vertov's theory about Kino-Pravda. It combines improvisation with the use of the camera to unveil truth or highlight subjects hidden behind crude reality. It is sometimes called observational cinema, if understood as pure direct cinema: mainly without a narrator's voice-over. There are subtle, yet important, differences among terms expressing similar concepts. Direct Cinema is largely concerned with the recording of events in which the subject and audience become unaware of the camera's presence: operating within what Bill Nichols, an American historian and theoretician of documentary film, calls the "observational mode", a fly on the wall. Many therefore see a paradox in drawing attention away from the presence of the camera and simultaneously interfering in the reality it registers when attempting to discover a cinematic truth. Cinéma vérité can involve stylized set-ups and the interaction between the filmmaker and the subject, even to the point of provocation. Some argue that the obvious presence of the filmmaker and camera was seen by most cinéma vérité filmmakers as the best way to reveal the truth in cinema. The camera is always acknowledged, for it performs the raw act of filming real objects, people, and events in a confrontational way. The filmmaker's intention was to represent the truth in what he or she was seeing as objectively as possible, freeing people from any deceptions in how those aspects of life were formerly presented to them. From this perspective, the filmmaker should be the catalyst of a situation. Few agree on the meanings of these terms, even the filmmakers whose films are being described."

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen Cinéma-vérité film.

OK, let's deal with the Challenge parameters first. I didn't notice that the movies were supposed to be feature length, and Lessons of Darkness is only 54 minutes. But I got it from the above mentioned list of Cinéma-vérité films, so blame them. Also, while even Wikipedia struggles to define cinéma vérité in an exact manner, it's not clear to me that Lessons of Darkness qualifies. According to the IMDB, Herzog "prefers to think of this as a science fiction film, not a documentary."

None of this is particularly relevant, except as a comment on the Challenge.

If you need a genre, Lessons of Darkness is a documentary presented as science fiction. Herzog uses beautiful/ugly visuals to construct Earth as if it were seen from another planet, and he provides no context beyond the suggestion that the movie takes place after a man-made apocalypse, a la Mad Max movies. In fact, it's Kuwait after the Gulf War, and oil is the predominant image. Oil is everywhere ... as Herzog-as-narrator says, "This was once a forest before it was covered with oil. Everything that looks like water is in actuality oil. Ponds and lakes are spread out all over the land. The oil is treacherous because it reflects the sky. The oil is trying to disguise itself as water." Oil is the ugly side of beautiful. Much of the film consists of long aerial shots of the terrain, and they are hypnotic.

This is not a hopeful movie. At times, it seems like Herzog is recreating the time when dinosaurs roamed the earth (one segment is titled "Dinosaurs on the Go"), only now, the dinosaurs are the big machines operated by oil workers. Without context, there is no telling how this apocalypse took place, or why it wouldn't take place again. Herzog finds beauty in the land, but it's hopeless beauty.


i am cuba (mikhail kalatozov, 1964)

This is the latest film I have watched in "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." Week 9 is called "ASC 100 Milestone Films Week":

Here, the American Society of Cinematographers have rounded up the films from the 20th century that stand out in terms of their achievement in the art of visual storytelling. So keep your eyes on the screen and be amazed.

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen film from the ASC's list of 100 Milestone Films of the 20th Century.

I Am Cuba is a film about the Cuban revolution, sponsored by the Soviet Union with a Soviet director.

Neither Cuba nor the Soviets approved of film, as noted on the IMDB site:

Both the Soviets and the Cubans were disappointed in the film. In Cuba, it is referred to as "I am NOT Cuba". They never felt it was a portrait of themselves - but, rather a depiction of Cuba imposed on them by the Soviet Union. Soviet Union wanted to make a straight-forward propaganda film. They felt the director Mikhail Kalatozov made an 'art' film instead.

Both countries are right. The Cuban people in the movie never rise above stereotypes: the prostitute, the farmer, the student. And while there is plenty of "art" in I Am Cuba, it presents itself as a ironic contrast to what the Soviets probably thought they were paying for. America is consistently shown in a negative manner, but at times the Western style seems pretty darned cool. All of this is important because I Am Cuba got practically no distribution at the time. The Soviets didn't like it, the Cubans didn't like it, and the Americans were in the middle of a Cold War. It wasn't rediscovered (or rather, discovered) until the mid-90s.

I Am Cuba is a terrific example of great cinematography (Sergey Urusevskiy is credited) ... it it certainly a milestone. I only hesitate to include these clips because the quality isn't great, which does a disservice to the cinematography. But at least you get the idea. First, the opening of the film. Watch the long take that begins a little more than 2 minutes in. And watch until the end, keeping in mind this was the early 1960s.

And my favorite of all the long takes:

And if that isn't enough, Raquel Revuelta plays "Cuba" ... it is she who narrates, always returning to "I Am Cuba". #343 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time.


death bell (hong-seung yoon, 2008)

This is the latest film I have watched in "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." Week 8 is called "Horrors Crossing Borders Week":

Sometimes, the most horrifying things are those in the unknown. With the added disorientation from a different than usual location and/or language, foreign horror allows us to not only see what other countries and cultures might find horrifying, but to break free of the traditions of our own country's horror spectacles. And, ya know, Halloween.

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen horror film from a country other than the one you originate from/live currently.

Not the finest hour for the Challenge. I figured I was safe ... Korean horror, 88 minutes. Comments suggested a blend of Battle Royale, which I liked, and Saw, which I have avoided and thus don't know the connection. Battle Royale was a violent, over-the-top Hunger Games, and not surprisingly was kinda silly. It was good. Death Bell is violent and over-the-top and silly, but it's not good. The basic setup is intriguing: elite students at a Japanese school must correctly answer quiz questions, with one of them dying for each wrong answer. But there is little suspense, the various students aren't individualized enough to care about them, and the "solution" to the crime is anti-climactic. Not the worst film I've watched in the Challenge, but close. Of course, there is a sequel. Bonus points for a novel use of a washing machine.