fear of a black hat (rusty cundieff, 1993)

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 26 is called "Rock It or Mock It Week".

"Oh yeah, well, I'll make my own documentary, with rock music and comedy! In fact, forget the documentary!"

-Bender Bending Rodriguez, probably.
(That's right, another Futurama reference, I can't be stopped.)

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen rockumentary or mockumentary film.

Fear of a Black Hat has two movie reference points. This Is Spinal Tap established the music mockmentary genre, and CB4 (which came out the same year as Black Hat) applied it to rap music. I've always thought Spinal Tap was funnier in concept than in execution, although it has some iconic scenes. It's been a long time since I saw CB4, and all I remember is that it was weak but had one song I found hilarious:

Fear of a Black Hat has more good parodies, some of them fairly subtle. Because of this, I suspect it plays better to fans of early-90s rap, because that's where their targets come from. Does it matter if you know that "I'm Just a Human Being" is inspired by P.M. Dawn? Does anyone still know P.M. Dawn? Here's the Black Hat Version:

When I doo-doo is my shit not brown
It's a universal thing we all flush it down
And when you wipe do you look at the tissue
Most folks do, it ain't even an issue
Hot stuff makes it burn comin out
I bet everyone knows what I'm talkin about
'Cause we are all one race on this planet
We all burp and fart, and that's the way God planned it
So don't act like you're superior
Eat something bad an just like me you'll get diarrhea
'Cause black, white, yellow, red, brown or gold
Our shit all comes from the same little hole
You are just like me
I'm just a human

Like other modern comedies, Fear of a Black Hat is hilarious at its best, dead on arrival at its worst. Kasi Lemmons is in the cast ... she later directed Eve's Bayou.

Here's P.M. Dawn, for comparison purposes:

hour of the wolf (ingmar bergman, 1968)

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 25 is called "1,001 Films to Watch Before You Die Week".

Maybe the most well known film reference book widely available for consumer purchase, 1,001 Films to Watch Before You Die is a yearly publication showcasing a selection of 1,001 films with essays and contributions by 70+ film critics. If you're a fan of film, you've most likely come across at least one edition of these books over the years, and maybe even flipped through one at one point or another. Now, the list I've linked uses the 2018 version of the book, and that's the version that will be used for this challenge, but if there's a 2019 version that is released after this Season Challenge is published, you are free to watch a film from that list, even if it didn't appear on the 2018 version.

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen film from the 2018 edition of the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die.

Max von Sydow died last week, so I chose one of his movies for this challenge.

David Lynch loved Hour of the Wolf. If you've seen his movies, and you see Hour of the Wolf, you'll understand his feelings. Hour of the Wolf is beautiful to look at (Bergman's usual contributor Sven Nykvist was the cinematographer). It focuses on intense psychological profiles that are rarely concrete, allowing the viewer to interpret what we are seeing both in real time, and when we look back on the film. There is plenty to talk about.

And its meaning are insular. Bergman drew on his own nightmares ... when Max von Sydow's artist Johan has terrifying visions, they have at times direct connections to things Bergman has experienced. This gives them that inscrutable, uneasy terror of the worst nightmares. They don't have to "mean" anything. But it feels like Bergman knows what they "mean".

Liv Ullmann, who is the best thing about the movie, said "she had little understanding of the subject matter during production, but recognized Bergman's traits in von Sydow's character." She knew Bergman intimately. The audience does not, so we can't really recognize Bergman, other than knowing Johan "is" Bergman.

So Hour of the Wolf becomes an example of Your Mileage May Vary. I found it intriguing, it was never boring, Liv Ullmann was excellent, and it was over in an hour-and-a-half. If it matches your taste preferences, you might agree that it has earned its spot at #485 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time. For me, it does not reach the heights of The Seventh Seal (another Bergman/von Sydow collaboration).

Here is one of the best scenes in the movie. This is not the best print ... don't judge Sven Nykvist!

where is the friend's house (abbas kiarostami, 1987)

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 24 is called "Masters of the (Middle) East Week".

Twisting the rules of this one as well, as we usually showcase East Asian filmmakers here, but this time around, we're taking a trip to the Middle East. Specifically, we're going to take a look at two modern Iranian filmmakers, both of whom create challenging and critically acclaimed cinema.

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen film directed by either Abbas Kiarostami or Asghar Farhadi.

This was an odd one. I could have sworn I'd seen it before. Being obsessive/compulsive, I have a variety of methods for keeping track of what I've seen, most obviously by writing about the movies here on this blog. Well, I've never before written about Where Is the Friend's House?, I've never marked it as watched on any sites, so I decided maybe I hadn't seen it, and I thus chose it for my movie for this week's Challenge. Having watched it, I feel certain I did indeed see it before.

I loved Kiarostami's Close-Up, perhaps the most meta film of all time. I've also seen Certified Copy, which I liked without finding it a classic. But I was frustrated by Where Is the Friend's House?, and it didn't really help that I think Kiarostami wanted that reaction. The story is of a young boy who accidentally takes home the school notebook of a classmate. It is established that the classmate will be expelled if he doesn't come to class with his notebook and his homework. So the young boy decides he must take the notebook to the classmate. But he doesn't know where the friend lives, and when he tries to explain to his mother that he needs to return the notebook, she tells him to do his homework, watch the baby, get bread at the story, basically everything except return the notebook. The boy struggles to express the importance of his mission, and he is frustrated that none of the adults are actually listening to him. He sneaks off, walking from one small town to another, trying to find the friend's house.

It's not an easy trip, because he keeps running into adults who won't listen to him or understand him. Babek Ahmed Poor, an amateur who plays the boy, does a great job of showing frustration. In fact, it's almost too great a job ... I shared his frustration, but not only did I think the adults were too dismissive, I wanted to strangle the tyke for his persistence in bugging everyone. Kiarostami wants us to understand the boy's frustration, and we do, but added to that is my frustration with the boy, which I doubt is what Kiarostami wants us to feel.

Still, my reservations are clearly my own, and your mileage may vary. I'd say I'll watch it again sometime to see if I react differently, except I think this was the "again". #294 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time.

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.)

french cancan (jean renoir, 1955)

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 22 is called "Foreign Musicals Week".

"What's the point of watching a musical that's in a language you don't even understand?" you might ask. Well, as I'm not someone who's from an English-speaking country, I sometimes ask myself that too. But I still watch musicals in other languages, because music is universal! Hope you find a musical with a sound you like :-))

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen musical in a language different from one that you speak.

It's always nice to check out a Renoir movie I haven't seen ... he is on my shortlist of the greatest directors of all time. Yet this is only the seventh Renoir I have seen, and he has more than 40. I wouldn't mind having a Renoir festival, just gorge on his movies until I'd seen them all, but I also like to spread things around, watch things I wouldn't have encountered otherwise. That is, I am taking part in this Season Challenge because it exposes me to new films, not because it gives me an excuse to see French Cancan. Still, it's a happy coincidence that Renoir popped into my Challenge.

French Cancan is an interesting blend of artifice and the real. The entire film was shot on sets, and there is no effort to hide that fact. But the sets don't feel fake as much as they are extra-real. Everything is magnified, especially the colors. The film consciously calls on French impressionism ... Renoir's father was Pierre-Auguste Renoir, who frequently painted his family, including young Jean. The super-reality of the look of French Cancan reflects the way Renoir creates a world where art is paramount, where daily life can never reach the heights of art, and where the life of a performer is mostly realized on stage, often at the cost of an ordinary life.

The great Jean Gabin plays a cafe owner, Danglard, with an eye for new talent. During the course of the film, he drops one woman after another ... he cares about them all, but he cares more about performing, he brings out the performer in his partners, and moves on when another catches his eye. Near the end of the film, Danglard chastises his latest discovery, simultaneously revealing himself as a cad and making a case for the value of the performer:

Renoir loves all of his characters. When she is a laundry worker, Nini (Françoise Arnoul) is a lovely girl, although she is not an innocent. When she becomes a dancer, she blossoms. When she resists Danglard and the call of the stage, it is understandable, but when she finally gives herself over to the audience, she is fulfilled. But she isn't "better" than she was in the laundry, and the trade-off is clear: be like all the rest, or be a trouper. As usual, Renoir manages to imbue every step of Nini's life with respect. Not idealized respect ... French Cancan isn't a world where laundry workers are better than everyone else. But neither are troupers.

Everything culminates in the Cancan:

In the middle of all this, Renoir finds time for a cameo appearance by Edith Piaf as "Eugénie Buffet":

There are so many great performances here. Of special note is the smoldering Mexican star María Félix (at one point, she and Arnoul have a wonderful fight, described by Roger Ebert as "one of those movie scenes, much beloved in the taverns of Westerns, in which everybody in the room inexplicably joins in and starts pummeling each other.")

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

the shape of water (guillermo del toro, 2017)

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 21 is called "Modern Love Week".

Looking back on film history, a lot of major films that stand the test of time are romance films. CasablancaGone with the WindRoman HolidayTitanic, pretty much every screwball comedy, hell, even The Princess Bride, are all films based upon romance. So, in this week of love, let's take a look at those romance films released within the past 5 or so years, and perhaps see what will stand the test of time like those star crossed and fated loves of cinema's past.

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen romance film released in 2015 or later or later.

Took me a bit to finally get around to this one. Guillermo del Toro has established himself as one of my favorite directors, and I wanted to see The Shape of Water pretty much as soon as it came out. But I missed the initial run, and then like so many fine movies, it got lost in the shuffle. I've had it on my DVR for what seems like years, and I'm glad the Challenge got me to watch it at last.

While there is some breadth to del Toro's work, all of the movies I've seen, whether the Hellboys (based on comics) or Pacific Rim (giant Kaiju) or Crimson Peak (influenced by Jane Eyre), have elements of fantasy, which is not my favorite genre (proof in itself that del Toro casts a spell on me). Del Toro loves his monsters, and he works hard to make us love them, too. The Shape of Water resembles The Creature from the Black Lagoon, only with Cocteau's Jean Marais as The Beast. Del Toro finds inspiration in low-budget genre fare, but his visual sense moves far beyond what those pictures offer.

While del Toro's vision drives the movie, ultimately it is the acting that raises The Shape of Water to another level. Both Sally Hawkins and Doug Jones do remarkable things while missing a crucial element in acting ... Hawkins' character is mute, while Jones is Amphibian Man. Hawkins only "speaks" using sign language, Jones barely speaks at all, but the bond they form as they communicate is what makes The Shape of Water a fitting choice for a "Modern Love Week". Hawkins' face is a wonder ... she is never pathetic the way a mute sometimes is in the movies. Her life is mostly full, and once she connects with the Amphibian, fullness arrives. She deserved her Oscar nomination ... she lost to Frances McDormand, and Saoirse Ronan was wonderful, too, but Hawkins is doing something special and unique. (The film won four Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director.)

The Shape of Water is del Toro's best since Pan's Labyrinth. #369 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century.

And anothher influence on del Toro:

the beast of yucca flats (coleman francis, 1961)

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 20 is called "Alternate Oscars Week", but I had seen most of the possible selections, and was unable to find the others. So I substituted Week 32, "366 Weird Movies Week", since I'll be in Spain when that one is on the calendar.

As this year's Season Challenge nears its end, I figured I'd try to leave you all with something...memorable. Let's get weird, folks.

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen 366 Weird Movies film.

Well, this certainly was a weird movie. Terrible, but weird. Actually, it's not weird as much as it is incompetent, but at times it's hard to tell the difference. It appears regularly on Worst Movies Ever lists, but for my money, it never makes it to "so bad it's good". It's just simply bad. Against the gold standard (which I continue to believe is Robot Monster, not Plan 9 from Outer Space), The Beast of Yucca Flats is merely unwatchable. There is no use reviewing a movie like this. Best to just resort to a list of, OK, weird things.

1) The biggest name in the cast (no pun intended) was Tor Johnson, an enormous pro rassler from Sweden who in later years became a staple in grade-Z movies, best known for the films he made with Ed Wood (Bride of the Monster, Plan 9 from Outer Space, Night of the Ghouls). In The Beast of Yucca Flats, Johnson plays a noted Soviet scientist (don't worry, he soon turns into the title character).

2) There is a pre-credits scene featuring a woman who has just showered, who is strangled to death by a mysterious bad guy (as we later see, he dresses like The Beast). While many prints are edited, the one I watched on Amazon featured the entire scene, which includes the woman, bare-breasted ... in a 1961 movie! The scene was shot after filming was done, and it appears to have nothing to do with the rest of the movie. Legend is that director Coleman Francis liked nude scenes.

3) The movie was shot without sound. When people speak (which is rare), they are looking away from the camera so we can't see if they are synced. Mostly, all we hear is an incessant musical score, sound effects, and an endless and truly bizarre voice-over narration. Someone did us the favor of making a super-cut of all the narration:

Here's the trailer, so you don't have to watch the actual movie:

road to bali (hal walker, 1952)

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 19 is called "Comedy Duos Week":

Sometimes, when the chemistry works, it just works. Which is why some comedic film duos appeared in multiple films, because people just loved seeing the two work off each other. So, for this week, we are going to take a look at the films of comedic duos. To be a little more specific, the duo whose film(s) you choose must have had at LEAST 3 outings together in starring roles, solidifying their identity as a "duo". So, where Amy Poehler and Tina Fey may not make the cut as they only have two outings and only bit parts in Mean Girls, an unlikely duo like Kid 'n Play DO make the cut, as they were in three of the House Party films. Strange, I know, but them's the rules.

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen film starring a comedy duo with three or more outings together. I've created a list that offers a few examples to choose from.

I had planned to watch a Jay and Silent Bob movie, but I didn't really want to, so at the last minute I substituted this "Road" movie that I hadn't seen before.

I wrote, of Road to Morocco:

The movies were ... how about “insouciant”? They were nonsensical, offering parodies of popular genres of the day. There were lots of ad-libs, with Hope often talking directly to the audience. As in Hope’s comedy act, there were plenty of topical references, one reason the films don’t hold up as well as some ... there was no attempt to be timeless. I guess the closest thing in more recent years would be the Naked Gun movies with Leslie Nielsen.

Road to Bali comes near the end of the series ... there was only one more, a decade later, and it's barely worth remembering. It's the only one in color. It's not the best, or my favorite, but the silliness factor is good. I'm not going to give away the cameos ... it's enough to know that they are there ... but among the goofy stuff, you've got a dangerous giant squid, a recurring snake charmer bit, Bing and Dorothy and Hope singing, Hope breaking the fourth wall (just before one Crosby song, he looks at the camera and declares, "He's gonna sing, folks. Now's the time to go out and get the popcorn"). Hope and Crosby play patti cake. The plot is unimportant ... when I mentioned to my wife I'd watched it, she asked with a smile what the plot was. I told her Hope and Crosby were on the lam, and they both fell for Lamour. "I figured", she said, since that was always the plot. Hope and Crosby ad-lib, Lamour patiently puts up with it. Many, perhaps most, of the topical material is lost on today's audiences (unless you are up to date on who was the head of the Chicago Musician's Union at the time, or which baseball teams Hope and Crosby owned in real life, or which of the duo had won an Oscar and which hadn't). But the insouciance I referred to earlier remains. The racism is pretty casual ... the Indonesian setting is clearly placed in the Paramount backlot, and the "natives" are led by Leon Askin, who plays the king as if he is auditioning for his famous part as General Burkhalter in Hogan's Heroes. There is a discussion of whether the natives are head hunters, cannibals, or both. It's neither better nor worse than other movies of its time.

There is one scenario full of subtext. Both Hope and Crosby (I could use the character names, but why bother) think they are marrying Lamour. They wake up in the morning to realize they were going to marry each other. King Leon Askin finds this hilarious ... "two grooms, no bride! Hahahahahaha!"

It interests me that I replaced a more modern comedy with this relic from my childhood. I am so predictable in my lack of feel for comedies today, but Road to Bali isn't all that different from an Adam Sandler picture. It would seem that nostalgia affects my response to comedies.

OK, here's one cameo spoiler, as well as a spoiler for the end of the movie, so don't watch if that bothers you. Trivia: the star who turns up here is wearing their costume from a different picture they made with Hope:

come drink with me (king hu, 1966)

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 18 is called "Wuxia Week":

From Wikipedia:

"Wuxia, which literally means 'martial heroes', is a genre of Chinese fiction concerning the adventures of martial artists in ancient China. Although wuxia is traditionally a form of fantasy literature, its popularity has caused it to spread to diverse art forms such as Chinese opera, mànhuà, films, television series and video games. It forms part of popular culture in many Chinese-speaking communities around the world. The word "wǔxiá" is a compound composed of the elements wǔ (武, literally "martial", "military", or "armed") and xiá (俠, literally "chivalrous", "vigilante" or "hero"). A martial artist who follows the code of xia is often referred to as a xiákè (俠客, literally "follower of xia") or yóuxiá (遊俠, literally "wandering xia"). In some translations, the martial artist is referred to as a "swordsman" or "swordswoman" even though he or she may not necessarily wield a sword. The heroes in wuxia fiction typically do not serve a lord, wield military power, or belong to the aristocratic class. They often originate from the lower social classes of ancient Chinese society. A code of chivalry usually requires wuxia heroes to right and redress wrongs, fight for righteousness, remove oppressors, and bring retribution for past misdeeds. Chinese xia traditions can be compared to martial codes from other cultures such as the Japanese samurai bushidō."

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

This was a late substitute, after Tsui Hark's directorial debut, The Butterfly Murders, became unavailable. Come Drink with Me is an excellent replacement. It is one of the earliest wuxia movies, and stars Cheng Pei-Pei, who many years later played Jade Fox in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. I realized after watching the film that I had the mistaken notion that wuxia films were all "wire fu". The above Wikipedia description shows that wuxia is much broader than that, and in fact, Come Drink with Me seems to have very little wire work.

Cheng had a background in dance, which King Hu thought was more useful than training in martial arts. (Michelle Yeoh had a similar story prior to her work in action films.) Given how influential Come Drink with Me turned out to be, it's interesting that there is probably more plot than action in the film. To my eye, the action was not as impressive as in later films, but I'm not certain King Hu intended the action to be mind-blowing.

Cheng is good (and very young, only 20 at the time). The rest of the cast are more archetypal than "real", which fits the way the story is told. The version I watched was dubbed, not ideal, but better than nothing, and it added a retro feel ... it was a bit like watching dubbed kung fu movies on TV back in the day. My favorite wuxia movie is probably A Chinese Ghost Story.

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.