bloodsucking bastards (brian james o’connell, 2015)

This is the seventh 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 7 is called Vampires of the New Millennium Week:

These creatures are immortal, both in life and in film. Sure they've been around forever, but what have they been up to lately? Maybe you'd like to find out.

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen vampire film released in 2000 or later.

Bloodsucking Bastards has some similarities with Sorry to Bother You, Boots Riley's remarkable directing debut from 2018. The comparisons, though, are almost all in favor of the later film.

Both movies show contemporary office work environments that are boring and repetitious. Both feature supernatural angles. And that's where things go downhill for Bloodsucking Bastards.

Riley's fantasy/farce is filled with pointed social commentary that doesn't get in the way of the film. Bloodsucking Bastards has little subtext at all ... it's a vampire movie in an office setting, and that's about it. Which means the vampire story better be good. And, I regret to say, it's not. Sorry to Bother You is also loony, usually in a good way, but in any event, Riley was willing to try anything. Brian James O'Connell's film was much more straightforward. He makes ingenious use of his low budget, and attracts actors who fit their roles and do well by them. But the slow buildup is more slow than buildup, and the revelations of the plot aren't all that unusual for a vampire movie.

Part of me thinks it's unfair to compare the two movies. But as I was watching Bloodsucking Bastards, I kept thinking of Sorry to Bother You, and I never thought I was seeing a better movie. Oh, and it's a comedy. Among the other possible choices for this week's challenge were Let the Right One In, a favorite of mine, and Only Lovers Left Alive, which I also preferred to the one I ended up with.


martha marcy may marlene (sean durkin, 2011)

This is the 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 6 is called Mumblegore Week:

What we got here is what's known in the business as a sub-genre, a more specific type of film within a specified genre. Here, we can see the horror spinoff of the Mumblecore genre: films characterized by low budgets and a focus on naturalistic acting and dialogue over plot, now stained with fake blood and jump scares. Time to get spooky.

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

OK, I've seen a "Mumblegore" film. I'm not sure I understand the genre yet. Martha Marcy May Marlene fits the Mumblecore mode, low budget ($600,000) and the rest. And it has some trigger scenes. But "gore" is the wrong word for this film. The IMDB "Parents Guide" lists 9 items under "Sex and Nudity", and also notes examples of profanity and drinking. But it only lists 4 items under "Violence and Gore". One of those four happens outside of the camera's view, one features "no blood or injury", one is "woman kicks man down the stairs". There is rape in the movie, and it is as upsetting as it should be ... as I say, there are trigger scenes in the movie. But there is little to no fake blood, and jump scares are also at a minimum. What Sean Durkin does is create an ominous tension that never leaves us throughout the movie. It works as a kind of horror movie, but it's really more a character study of disturbed people, more subtle than the "Mumblegore" tag suggests.

For the most part, this is all irrelevant. The movie is effective, whatever genre it is in. It features the breakout performance from Elizabeth Olsen, and excellent supporting jobs by John Hawkes and Sarah Paulson. Durkin relies heavily on Olsen in his first feature as a director, and she's is more than up to it. As Roger Ebert wrote at the time, "Elizabeth Olsen can know that no one will ever ask, 'Which one is she?'" His comment might seem odd, given her eventual fame as Scarlet Witch in the Avengers movies, but in 2011, if she was known at all it was as the younger sister of the Olsen twins.

I feel like I'm mostly talking around the edges of Martha Marcy May Marlene. But there's only so many ways I can say that Elizabeth Olsen is terrific here. #453 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century.


divorce italian style (pietro germi, 1961)

This is the fifth 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 5 is called "Commedia all'italiana Week":

From Wikipedia:

"Commedia all'italiana (i.e. "Comedy in the Italian way") or Italian-style comedy is an Italian film genre...widely considered to have started with Mario Monicelli's I soliti ignoti (Big Deal on Madonna Street) in 1958 and derives its name from the title of Pietro Germi's Divorzio all'italiana (Divorce Italian Style, 1961).

Rather than a specific genre, the term indicates a period (approx. from the late fifties to the early seventies) in which the Italian film industry was producing many successful comedies, with some common traits like satire of manners, farcical and grotesque overtones, a strong focus on "spicy" social issues of the period (like sexual matters, divorce, contraception, marriage of the clergy, the economic rise of the country and its various consequences, the traditional religious influence of the Catholic Church) and a prevailing middle-class setting, often characterized by a substantial background of sadness and social criticism that diluted the comic contents."

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen Commedia all'italiana film.

I had 160 films to pick from, and I figured I would only have seen a few. Turns out I'd never seen any. So I went with the film from which the name of the genre is derived.

Divorce Italian Style won many honors, including an Oscar for Best Writing, Story and Screenplay - Written Directly for the Screen (winning over Last Year at Marienbad, Through a Glass Darkly, Freud, and That Touch of Mink). Marcello Mastroianni was nominated for Best Actor, the first male actor nominated for a Best Actor Oscar in a foreign language performance. Pietro Germi was nominated for Best Director. (They lost to Gregory Peck and David Lean, respectively.) The honors are deserved ... Mastroianni carries the film with a performance that walks a line between serious and absurd, and the screenplay by Germi along with Ennio De Concini and Alfredo Giannetti is perfection. The plot is farce ... Mastroianni plays a nobleman from a dissolute family who is unhappy in his marriage, and in love with his teenage cousin (it's likely mostly lust, but he thinks it's love). Due to ancient Italian law, this man can murder his wife and get off with a lenient sentence if he can show he has been cuckolded, so he sets out to pair his wife with a lover so he can catch them in the act, kill her, spend a few years in jail, and come out to marry his young cousin. The plot advances like clockwork, Stefania Sandrelli is appealing as the cousin, and Daniella Rocca is suitably bothersome as the wife.

The whole thing is a comedy ... "in the Italian way" ... and I smiled quite often. But it is not a laugh-out-loud movie, and while it isn't trying for that effect, I did find myself admiring the film without loving it. Put that on me ... Divorce Italian Style does indeed border on perfection, but I might have wished for a little imperfection.


betty blue (jean-jacques beineix, 1986)

This is the fourth 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 4 is called "Cinéma du Look (Who's Talking) Week":

From Wikipedia:

"Cinéma du look was a French film movement of the 1980s and 1990s, analysed, for the first time, by French critic Raphaël Bassan in La Revue du Cinéma issue n° 448, May 1989, in which he classified Luc Besson, Jean-Jacques Beineix and Leos Carax as directors of 'le look'.

These directors were said to favor style over substance, spectacle over narrative. It referred to films that had a slick, gorgeous visual style and a focus on young, alienated characters who were said to represent the marginalized youth of François Mitterrand's France. Themes that run through many of their films include doomed love affairs, young people more affiliated to peer groups than families, a cynical view of the police, and the use of scenes in the Paris Métro to symbolise an alternative, underground society. The mixture of 'high' culture, such as the opera music of Diva and Les Amants du Pont-Neuf, and pop culture, for example the references to Batman in Subway, was another key feature. French filmmakers were inspired by New Hollywood films (most notably Francis Ford Coppola's One from the Heart and Rumble Fish), late Fassbinder films (Lola), as well as television commercials, music videos, and fashion photography."

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen Cinéma du Look film.

I admit, I didn't know much about Cinéma du look, which is why I find these challenges so much fun ... I see films I might not have thought of on my own. I loved Beineix's Diva, and hoped Betty Blue would excite me as well.

Not everything was optimistic. Roger Ebert hated it, famously writing:

Have you ever had the experience of going to a movie and trying to make sense of the plot, and trying to figure out why anyone has wasted his life and money on the project, only to suddenly have a dazzling insight? That's what happened to me during "Betty Blue." Reviews have been written debating the movie's view of madness, of feminism, of the travail of the artist. They all miss the point. "Betty Blue" is a movie about Beatrice Dalle's boobs and behind, and everything else is just what happens in between the scenes where she displays them.

In fairness, using this criteria, the film is also about Jean-Hugues Anglade's body, front and behind, although he isn't naked quite as often as Dalle (David Harris wrote that Anglade's "uncircumcised cock could have received credit for a supporting role"). There is no use talking about Betty Blue without mentioning the sex. But there is more going on ... as Eddie Murphy said when Bill Cosby accused him of creating an entire act out of cuss words, "I can't have no 'curse' show, I mean I gotta throw in a few jokes in between the curses, I can't come out and go 'Hello! Filth flar'n filth, motherfucker, dick, pussy, snot, and shit. Good night!'" And if you have a movie that serves as an example of a film movement that "favors style over substance", and it runs for more than 3 hours, you can't just have a sex show. You gotta throw in a few other things, you gotta show the style.

And Betty Blue is overflowing with style. But no matter how stylish Beineix gets, there's no escaping the fact that Beatrice Dalle dominates the movie. We can't take our eyes off of her. You never know what Betty will do next, and that is partly a plot device (Betty would seem to be insane, which we realize gradually over the three hours), but is also because Dalle has a fascinating and unique screen presence. She's not quite beautiful, but you can see why Anglade as "Zorg" is obsessed with her. Dalle is smoking. Her effect on Zorg (and on the audience) is so overwhelming that he never seems to understand that she's disturbed.

The way Betty's mental problems are handled is the primary place where the film fails. For as much as Dalle commands our attention, and despite the film's name, in the end, this is a movie about Zorg. Betty helps Zorg discover himself, and when that is accomplished, she is no longer needed. She starts to turn her destructive behavior on herself, and since Betty is indeed pretty annoying at times, it's almost a relief (for Zorg, and for the audience) when she is finally dispatched. Zorg, and the movie, needed Bette's energy, needed Dalle's vitality. But she doesn't get the rewards.


brother john (james goldstone, 1971)

This is the third 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 3 is called "Classic Performers: Sidney Poitier Week":

Famously known as the first black actor to win the Oscar for Best Actor, Sidney Poitier's career is filled with rich tapestries of social disparities and intense moments. Though his early roles in racially charged films left him a tad pigeon holed in terms of characters, he always put his all into his roles, with a lot of them becoming nothing less than iconic. There are plenty of picks within his filmography for all of us to enjoy, so let's take a look back at one of the greatest to ever play the game of cinema.

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen film starring Sidney Poitier.

My original choice here was The Mark of the Hawk, but the print on Amazon was crap, so I switched to Brother John. Besides Poitier, the cast included the formerly-blacklisted Will Geer, and future Oscar-nominee Paul Winfield. Quincy Jones, who already had two Grammys to his name, did the music.

I mention all these details in the name of procrastination, because Brother John is hard to talk about. It depends on a secret, and while some people were spoiled in advance and said it didn't affect their enjoyment, I wasn't spoiled, and the big secret isn't revealed until the end (if it's revealed at all ... this is a pretty vague movie). Waiting an hour-and-a-half for a Big Secret in a movie that is a bit mundane isn't the best way to spend your afternoon or evening. Poitier is fine, but subdued. There is an attempt to shoehorn social consciousness into the film, but it all feels artificial.

Here's an example of the hard-hitting, exciting character development in Brother John:


sócrates (alexandre moratto, 2018)

This is the 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 2 is called "Independent Spirit John Cassavetes Award Week":

From Wikipedia:

"The Independent Spirit John Cassavetes Award is presented to the creative team of a film budgeted at less than $500,000 by the Film Independent, a non-profit organization dedicated to independent film and independent filmmakers. It is named after actor/screenwriter/director John Cassavetes, a pioneer of American independent film.

Created for the 15th Independent Spirit Awards, it was originally called the Independent Spirit Award for Best First Feature (Under $500,000). After that, the rules changed so that any feature film budgeted under $500,000 could be eligible (regardless of how many films the director has made), hence the new name."

We're going low budget this week. Let's see what can be done with limited funding and unlimited passion.

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen film that has been nominated for the Independent Spirit John Cassavetes Award.

"Going low budget" is an understatement. Sócrates had a budget of $20,000, with which was produced a feature film of great skill. Alexandre Moratto was making his debut as a director, as was Christian Malheiros as the title character (Malheiros was not an amateur, having been in theater since he was 9). Moratto worked with Instituto Querô, a UNICEF program for at-risk youths. He was helped by another first-timer, writer Thayná Mantesso. The entire group worked closely together, and the resulting film is tight.

Malheiros isn't quite the whole story, but he is in every scene ... hell, he's in pretty much every shot. He plays Sócrates with internal strength ... he doesn't over-act, using his eyes to tell us what he is feeling. Moratto relies on a lot of close-ups that intensify the emotions of the characters. At the beginning of the film, Sócrates discovers his mother has died. Sócrates is 15, he seems to have no other family, and he lives in poverty. Everything works against him, but Sócrates makes every effort to improve his position. Throughout, he tries to make peace with his grief. The film, though, is not always peaceful. He becomes the lover of Maicon, played by yet another newcomer, Tales Ordakji, and their budding relationship is realistic but doomed, and the homophobia the two encounter is doubled down when Sócrates, having nowhere else to go, finally approaches his father, who beats him for being gay.

Somehow, with all of this, Moratto hasn't made a completely depressing movie. Malheiros gives us hope for Sócrates, even if events and society don't offer much help. Sócrates isn't just a good-for-you movie; it's a good movie, period.

(Among the films others chose for this week's challenge were Pieces of April and Old Joy. My brother Geoff, who is taking on the Challenge this year as well, has chosen Museum Hours.)


la haine (mathieu kassovitz, 1995)

This is the first official 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 1 is called "Popular Quality Week":

Gonna try to start this Season out with a challenge that aims to guarantee you a good watch. The Letterboxd Top 250 allows us to see what our community considers the best of the best. Here's the catch: we're having a bit of a popularity contest. I want you to watch the most popular film you haven't seen on this list. Its well regarded by a significant number of people, so why haven't you seen it yet?

Note: This may fluctuate between the time you create your list and when you start the Challenge. Feel free to stick with your original or you can update it if it changes, up to you.

This week's challenge is to watch the most popular film you haven't seen from the Letterboxd Top 250.

First film, and I'm already cheating. Which is allowed ... the Challenge is complex, but enforcement is lax. In this case, I didn't notice the part where I was supposed to pick "the most popular film I haven't seen". Well, first off, if I can't watch them, I can't pick them, so I eliminated every movie unavailable to me. Still, there were 7 films I should have picked before I ended up with La Haine. However it happened, the guarantee was fulfilled: it was a good watch.

While I thought the cast was mostly unknown to me, that wasn't really true. The biggest name is Vincent Cassel, who I have seen in several movies, most recently the Kristen Stewart movie Underwater. His two co-stars are Hubert Koundé (The Constant Gardener) and Saïd Taghmaoui (American Hustle). The three play Vinz, Hubert, and Saïd, which lends an element of non-fiction to the film, as if they weren't actors but just playing themselves. La Haine gives us a day in the life of three mostly aimless young men from a Parisian suburb. It has some of the feel of Mean Streets, with its emphasis on camaraderie. The plot turns on riots, in part inspired by the police attack on one of their friends. They care about their friend, but over time, it becomes clear that rioting grows less out of a political stance (although they can spout the rhetoric) and more out of boredom. These fellows have no job, no prospects, no hope, and that's not because they are bad people, but because society hasn't got a place for them. It is this that takes La Haine in a different direction from Mean Streets.

Director Mathieu Kassovitz, who was directing only his second feature (he was only 28), opted for black-and-white, which lends itself to the overall documentary feel. It feels like "real life", but there is nothing casual or off-the-cuff about Kassovitz' approach. And his actors rise to the occasion, as they too seem "real", as if their dialogue was improvised. It was not.

La Haine is #644 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time. Among the films others chose to kick off their Challenge were The Godfather, and Mad Max: Fury Road. My brother Geoff, who is taking on the Challenge this year as well, has chosen Whiplash.