geezer cinema/film fatales #128: the power of the dog (jane campion, 2021)

This makes six Jane Campion movies I have seen ... second among women directors only to Kathryn Bigelow in terms of how many of their films I have seen (I've also seen six from Agnès Varda, who is probably my favorite woman director). I've never seen a Varda movie I didn't like a lot. I've been a fan of Bigelow for more than 30 years; I look forward to her movies and try to see them when they are released, but there has been an occasional dud (The Weight of Water). Campion is a different case. I haven't considered any I've seen to be classics (my favorite is probably An Angel at My Table), and I reacted so negatively to In the Cut that I need to see it again to figure out if I was just in a bad mood. She gets extra credit for the first season of Top of the Lake. Basically, Jane Campion has been involved with many films in my viewing experience, and while I don't always remember to include her, she certainly belongs in any list of my important directors.

A winner of multiple awards, The Power of the Dog has so much going for it. It looks beautiful (Ari Wegner is the cinematographer, with New Zealand standing in admirably for Montana). The music from Jonny Greenwood gets into your head from the start (the closed captioning makes frequent mention of "uneasy music playing"). At the least, Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, and Kodi Smit-McPhee are likely Oscar nominees, and Jesse Plemons is right there with them (plus it's always nice to see Keith Carradine). The film examines toxic masculinity so deeply that a Google search of "power of the dog toxic masculinity" gets six million hits.

And yet ... blame it on me, but despite all of the above, I wasn't quite engaged with the movie as it was playing. I threatened to doze off more than once, and it was only thanks to later reviewing of a couple of scenes that I really understood what had happened. Blame it on me ... but there was something about The Power of the Dog that lulled me. I felt almost encouraged to let my attention wander. The result was a movie that elicited a big "Huh?" from me as it ended. I worked at getting the information that would help my appreciation, and I now disavow my "Huh". But exactly why did that happen in the first place?

I'll avoid spoilers, but I want to point out the first dialogue we hear, from an unknown narrator. "When my father passed, I wanted nothing more than my mother's happiness. For what kind of man would I be if I did not help my mother? If I did not save her?" We soon ascertain who the speaker is, and these lines are crucial to the film's ending. Beyond that, I'll say no more for now, but I suspect this is a movie that will reward a second viewing down the road.

[Letterboxd list of Jane Campion movies I have seen]

[Letterboxd list of Geezer Cinema movies]

[Letterboxd list of Film Fatales movies]

film fatales #113: shadow in the cloud (roseanne liang, 2020)

My friend Steve Fore, who has steered me to so many good movies in the past, tipped me off to this one, writing on Facebook:

Looking for a period war movie with horror elements that's wall-to-wall kineticism for 83 minutes? An homage to "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet," Bugs Bunny, and "Aliens" that transcends all three? That winningly draws on the go-for-broke non-logic and wild narrative implausibility of classic Hong Kong action movies? That has the heroine stuck in the belly turret of a B-17 for half the movie and makes that strategy both claustrophobic and thrillingly dynamic? ... [T]ry watching "Shadow in the Cloud."
Good call, Steve! Shadow in the Cloud is everything he said it was, with an emphasis on kinetic implausibility. This movie is loony from start to finish. Chloë Grace Moretz may seem implausible as the hero, but she makes her abilities seem real amidst all the logic-free plot. It's non-stop action that doesn't overstay its welcome ... Steve was right to mention it's only 83 minutes long. Director/co-writer Roseanne Liang was unknown to me. She's a Chinese New Zealander who delivers an unpretentious popcorn movie. I always have time for those.

they shall not grow old (peter jackson, 2018)

Perhaps the most impressive thing Peter Jackson accomplishes in this movie is to make it more than just a stunt. Where often something offbeat seems to exist just to show off, Jackson always had in mind a story about soldiers in World War I. They Shall Not Grow Old isn't there to make us amazed at the technical skill ... Jackson puts that skill to use in telling his story the best way possible.

For those who aren't aware of this film, Jackson used a hundred hours of old black-and-white footage, worked his way through hundreds of hours of interviews with soldiers, cleaned up the footage and then colorized it, and put it all together to give us a World War I we have never seen before.

It works as you would expect. The soldiers are more real to us, the war is more real, everything is more real than in a fictional film with actors. But the experience of watching They Shall Not Grow Old overwhelms your expectations. You know it will work, but you can't really be prepared for how much we are drawn in.

Jackson isn't trying to make a history of the war. He has access to footage of British soldiers, so that's who we see. He gives us the trees in the forest ... the movie is less about World War I, and more about how it felt to the soldiers in that war. You wouldn't come here to learn all about World War I. But Jackson gives us a deeper understanding of the lives of the soldiers who were fighting.

Peter Jackson's career is hard to believe. He started with splatter films. Then came Heavenly Creatures with Kate Winslet and Melanie Lynskey, the screenplay for which was nominated for an Oscar. After that, the Lord of the Rings trilogy. They Shall Not Grow Old doesn't seem to fit with any of these, but at this point, it's enough to just accept that Jackson has a lot of films he wants to make.

what i watched last week

Paris, Texas (Wim Wenders, 1984). Kurt Cobain’s favorite movie places character actor Harry Dean Stanton in a leading role, and he makes the most of it by underplaying. There is some fine acting here, not least by 8-year-old Hunter Carson in his film debut. The movie looks lovely, and Ry Cooder’s soundtrack sounds like the best parts of his contribution to Performance. Sam Shepard’s dialogue is a perfect match for Stanton’s quiet excellence. In other words, this is a very good movie. But its virtues, which are aggressively low-key, make it both a nice antidote to the Michael Bay School of Filmmaking, and something I admired more than I loved. #313 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the Top 1000 films of all time.

District 9 (Neill Blomkamp, 2009). Clearly Neill Blomkamp is influenced by Peter Jackson. I just didn’t expect that the influence would come from Jackson’s early splatter films. As the hero’s body started falling apart, I was reminded of Braindead/Dead Alive. It’s also pretty amazing that Sharlto Copley wasn’t an actor until this movie. District 9 is ambitious without losing its sense of humor (the Jackson influence again), and it succeeds on most of the levels it tries for. I don’t think the film is racist … it’s more misanthropic, humans in general pretty much suck in this movie. I’d probably feel differently if I were Nigerian. As is often the case with sci-fi, you have to close your mind to some parts … I don’t mind that the film is vague about some aspects of the backstory, but I’d still like to know exactly why the alien spaceship came to Earth in the first place, and why, if it was stranded for 20 years, Christopher and his son were able to get it working again so easily. But what the heck.

king kong (peter jackson, 2005)

King Kong has scenes the remind you of the original ... no surprise there ... it has scenes that copy/pay homage to the original ... no surprise there. Unlike the 1970s remake, better than its reputation but nonetheless a marginal film, the 21st-century Kong will bring fond memories to those who loved the original. The surprise was that on a couple of occasions, Peter Jackson managed to bring back memories of those wonderful splatter movies he made before he got famous. In particular, the battle with the ... and here, words escape me, I don't know, the insect/larva scene at the bottom of a chasm ... anyway, there's some pretty gross stuff in that scene, not as gross as Braindead/Dead Alive, but close enough. While Jackson goes to great lengths to attach his remake to the spirit of Depression-era American film making, these reminders of his own seat-of-his-pants productions do just as well in attaching this film to those splatter classics. And it's nice to know he hasn't forgotten those days.

The primary difference in the three versions of Kong revolve around the relationship between the lady and the ape. Fay Wray was revolted by Kong ... he may have loved her, but it was unrequited, understandably so considering he was a giant gorilla. Jessica Lange saw Kong as just another big ape, the kind she'd dealt with all her life ... she didn't hate him, any more than she hated any other guy trying to get into her pants, she just got annoyed. Naomi Watts tries yet another angle. She actually loves the big lunk. And it's to her credit (and Jackson's) that it's almost believable that Ann Darrow would get over her fear and start to connect with King Kong. (Watts also fulfills the other apparent requirement of the lead actress in a Kong production: nice legs.)

As for the rest, there's great stuff, good stuff, not-so-good stuff. Depending on your tolerance for Jack Black, there might even be some bad stuff ... I like Black OK, but thought he was easily the worst thing about this movie. I complain about movies being too long in the modern generation, and this movie is indeed too long, yet it goes by with relative speed, there aren't any boring moments, and while it didn't need to be three hours long, I'm more forgiving of Peter Jackson than I am of most filmmakers (although it is worth noting that you could watch his two best films, Braindead and Bad Taste, in about the same amount of time it takes to watch King Kong).

More importantly, and I think Jackson knows this better than anyone, no matter how much better the special effects are, no matter how loving the tribute Jackson pays to the original, no matter how effectively he adds a 21st-century sensibility to the film without damaging our memories of the original ... no matter all of this, the fact remains, without the original, there would be no remake. An obvious point, to be sure, but worth making. King Kong is Peter Jackson's version of a movie he loved. Jackson's first feature, Bad Taste, directed by, written by, starring, edited by, with makeup and cinematography and special effects by Peter Jackson, is his movie, period. I'm glad Peter Jackson remade King Kong, and it's a fine movie in its own right. It might even be "better" than the original. But it is not now, nor will it ever be, as essential as the original. And for those of us who loved his splatter-film beginnings, King Kong will never be as essential as Bad Taste and Braindead in our hearts.