geezer cinema: the book of eli (the hughes brothers, 2010)

This is the fifth movie I've seen from The Hughes Brothers, but for some reason it's the first one I've written about. Which is too bad, because The Book of Eli is at or near the bottom of the list when it comes to their movies. Menace II Society was a touchstone, with a terrifying performance by Larenz Tate. Dead Presidents (also with Tate) surprised me ... I thought it was even better than Menace. From Menace II Society in 1993 to From Hell in 2001, the brothers (who are twins) directed four movies together. For reasons not completely clear, they have only directed one movie together in the last 20 years, The Book of Eli. I wish I could say it was a return to form.

The brothers (and casting director Mindy Marin) put together a solid cast, with a couple of reliable leads in Denzel Washington and Gary Oldman, strong support from Mila Kunis in the female lead, and an intriguing list of players in smaller parts: Ray "Titus Pullo" Stevenson, Jennifer Beals, Frances de la Tour and Michael Gambon as an old couple that haven't lost their fire, even Tom Waits and an uncredited Malcolm McDowell. None of them are wasted, but it's really Denzel's show, with Oldman doing a good job of underplaying the villain, something he doesn't always do.

The story, a post-apocalyptic tale that goes mostly unexplained, reminded me of a lot of other movies, most of them better than The Book of Eli. There are a few twists near the end that I won't spoil (at least one of which, I didn't get until I read about the movie afterwards). The fight sequences are well done, with Denzel doing his own martial arts stunts. If you ended up spending two hours watching this movie, you wouldn't hate yourself afterwards. But you might wonder why you bothered. For me, there wasn't much to inspire. If you want to be surprised by a movie you might not know, check out Dead Presidents.


safety last! (fred c. newmeyer and sam taylor, 1923)

This is the thirty-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 33 is called "Hosts Past and Present Week".

Another Season Challenge has come and gone. As always, we must pay tribute to the hosts of Season's past for creating and maintaining the Challenge before I got my grubby mitts on it. Last year I had this separated into two weeks, but I figured I'd condense them to make room for another challenge. I hope you've enjoyed your time during this Season Challenge, and I look forward to seeing you all next time!

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen film from either Monsieur Flynn's Movies to See Before Your End Credits listkurt k's Personal Cannon list, or my own A Hundred or So of My Favorites list.

This was my very first Harold Lloyd movie, which amazes me, considering how many Keaton and Chaplin silents I've seen. I don't know how typical Safety Last! is of his work, so I hesitate to draw conclusions about Lloyd just yet. But there were a few things that struck me as different compared to the other two silent comedians.

First, I wasn't prepared for the way Lloyd (who plays a character listed as "The Boy", but whose name on his paycheck reads "Harold Lloyd") is a fairly normal guy. Chaplin is the Tramp, milking the sentimentality and always good for some thoughtful visual gags. Keaton, my favorite, is the blank-face existential hero. Lloyd? He's a guy, "The Boy", and no more than that. In Safety Last!, he wants to prove himself to his prospective wife, so he goes to the big city to get an impressive job. Chaplin might have wanted to impress a girl, but he was always going to be The Tramp. Keaton's relationship to women was complicated to say the least ... think of Seven Chances, with Buster, running away from hordes of prospective wives, starting an avalanche in the process. Lloyd is much less neurotic than Keaton. More than the others, he is an Everyman.

His stunts, which are what he remains famous for, are less chaotic than Keaton's. Keaton planned his stunts tightly, but they often looked as if he'd just thrown them together, or like they had happened while the camera was rolling. Lloyd lets us see the planning. It's one of the reasons he is so impressive, but I think he lacks the edge of the others. His most famous gag, which appears in Safety Last!, is amazing, a talking point well past when you've seen the film (that he is still remembered for it almost 100 years later speaks for itself), and it always looks perfectly planned. This takes nothing away from Lloyd's feats, but it does feel different.

I'm glad I finally got around to watching one of Lloyd's movies, and I'd like to see more of them. But I don't think I'll ever have the love for him that I do for Keaton.

This is the final picture in this year's Letterboxd Challenge, and I'm already looking forward to next year's. Among the movies that really came out of nowhere for me, so that I not only loved them, but I was surprised I loved them (let's face it, I hadn't heard of them) were The Lure and Furie. Let's revisit Furie one last time ... here we learn that you should never kidnap a child when Veronica Ngo is her mom:


uncut gems (benny and josh safdie, 2019)

I am not a fan of Adam Sandler comedies. I liked Punch-Drunk Love, although that was mostly Paul Thomas Anderson (as I noted at the time, Punch-Drunk Love was not my favorite PTA movie, but it was my favorite Adam Sandler movie, showing that I had lower standards for Sandler). About Sandler in that movie, I wrote, "I see decent acting chops peeking out of his work when he isn’t being an idiot."

It's arguable whether Sandler is "being an idiot" as Howard Ratner, a jeweler with a gambling problem. Howard's life is a mess, and he made it that way, so on that level, he's an idiot, but he's not a childlike buffoon like Billy Madison. Sandler is quite good in Uncut Gems, but since Howard is such an infuriating character, I can't stand the character, perhaps more so because Sandler is so good at portraying him. Mick LaSalle wrote, "There’s something about Sandler — in general, but especially here — that seems fundamentally decent and vulnerable, so that when we see him taking absurd risks, we wonder what his mother was like." A good line, but it doesn't work if you don't already find Sandler likable. I've never found him fundamentally decent in the few movies I've seen, so unlike LaSalle, when I see Howard taking absurd risks, I wonder why I'm watching a movie about such a dreadful character.

This is my first movie from the Safdies, so I have nothing to compare it to. Uncut Gems is flashy ... the technique consistently draws attention to itself. Added to Howard's tiresome nature, the hectic film making compounds the irritation. At one point, I checked to see if this long (135 minutes) movie was near the end, and there was still an hour to go. I'm not sure why I didn't just quit watching.

The Safdies (and casting directors Francine Maisler and Jennifer Venditti) have put together an interesting and varied cast, including Lakeith Stanfield, Idina Menzel, Eric Bogosian, and Judd Hirsch. Julia Fox makes an impressive feature-film debut. Basketball great Kevin Garnett does well playing a version of himself, and the Safdies work Garnett's real-life performance in the 2012 playoffs is nicely integrated into the plot. The Weeknd also appears as himself. It's good to see the names Tilda Swinton and Natasha Lyonne in the credits, but they are only brief unseen voices. Best of all is John Amos, who has a cameo that provides the best laugh of the movie.

Uncut Gems is too long, and it bugged the shit out of me. I hope I never see it again. But remove my taste preferences from the evaluation, and I grudgingly admit that Uncut Gems isn't so bad. Not as good as Punch-Drunk Love, but way better than Billy Madison. #359 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century.

Here's the first ten minutes:


geezer cinema: without remorse (stefano sollima, 2021)

I suppose I should use the official title, Tom Clancy's Without Remorse, but I'm feeling ornery. This was a real disappointment, and that shouldn't be the case. I had no expectations going in, had glanced at the negative reviews, and honestly, outside of The Hunt for Red October, I don't think I've seen any Clancy-related movies because he doesn't interest me. But I got my hopes up nonetheless, because I've been a fan of Michael B. Jordan since The Wire, and I liked all of Jordan's movies I'd seen up to this point.

Well, Jordan doesn't stink in Without Remorse, and I hope for his sake the film is popular and turns into a franchise for him. But it's a waste to take one of the most charismatic actors we have and give him a part that any lunk could have played. Jordan isn't asked to do anything but act badass in action scenes that might have impressed back in the 80s, when people like Arnold and Stallone were cranking out a couple of these a year. But in an age of Fury Road and the Raid movies, something as mundane as this no longer gets it. We've seen a handful of fairly recent action flicks during the Geezer Cinema era, and with few exceptions they all run together in a forgettable way. Letterboxd tags 24 of the 91-and-counting Geezer Movies as fitting into the Action genre, and half of them have been mediocre at best. There have been some pleasant surprises that keep me coming back for more (Underwater and The Old Guard, two 2020 movies starring Kristen Stewart and Charlize Theron respectively, were quite enjoyable movies about which I had no higher expectations going in than I did for Without Remorse). Point being that I am perfectly ready to enjoy a dumb action movie nowadays ... not everything is going to be Fury Road, I know that.

But Without Remorse isn't good or bad enough to win me over. It ticks off a lot of the plot points you know are coming before they happen. I'm often lost in the plots of these international "thrillers", and even I was calling things in advance. (We meet Jordan's wife in an early scene ... I immediately say, "She's going to die". And when it turns out she's pregnant, well that seals things. Yeah, that's a spoiler ... like I say, I'm feeling ornery.) In fairness, not everyone I thought was a bad guy turned out to be bad, but even that's a standard trick, isn't it?

A movie like this, that buries its star, relies on its action scenes, and Sollima doesn't give us even one scene that we remember the next day. I realize I'm spoiled by now ... movies like The Raids 1 and 2 have memorable scenes pretty much non-stop. But Without Remorse never comes close. If you had told me I'd ever see a movie with Michael B. Jordan that I mostly laughed at while watching, I'd have said you were nuts. Now I know better.

(There's an inside joke for fans of the old NYPD Blue show, although it may have been unintentional. Jordan plays a man named John Kelly ... his undercover name becomes John Clark.)

[Letterboxd list of Geezer Cinema movies]


music friday: iris dement

Iris DeMent, The Great American Music Hall, a couple of dates including October, 1996. I'm not totally clear about Iris ... we saw her at least twice, and had tickets for one other show that we had to give away (conflicted with a Bruce concert). The 1996 show was the second time we saw her, I know that. For that 1996 show, she was touring behind The Way I Should. My memory is that album was considered a disappointment, but I never agreed ... it's just that the two albums that preceded it, Infamous Angel and My Life, were so great they were hard to top. She didn't release another album for eight years, and that one featured church tunes she remembered from her mother (there was one original song). Eight years later, she gave us another album, this one of originals, her first in sixteen years. The easy explanation is writer's block, but I don't know if she would agree. It's not that she was inactive in those years ... she recorded with other artists, including several songs with John Prine that appeared on In Spite of Ourselves (a wonderful album, and DeMent is one reason).

Here's her first classic, a song from her debut album:

From The Tonight Show in 1994, the title song of My Life. I'm pretty sure this is around the time we saw her for the first time.

Her third album, The Way I Should, was her "political" album and featured a more rockish sound. People who wanted to hear more country folk songs about "life" were unhappy, and this song in particular pissed off a lot of conservatives:

Finally, here she is with John Prine:


losing it at the movies: one flew over the cuckoo's nest (miloš forman, 1975)

Picking this up after still yet another long break, this is the twelfth in a series, "Losing It at the Movies," which is explained here. I've been at it for almost two years ... maybe I'll finish in 2021.

In 5001 Nights at the Movies, Pauline Kael wrote of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest:

Smashingly effective version of Ken Kesey's novel about a rebel outcast, McMurphy (Jack Nicholson), who is locked in a hospital for the insane. The book was a lyric jag, and it became a nonconformists' bible. Published in 1962, it contained the prophetic essence of the whole Vietnam period of revolutionary politics going psychedelic. Miloš Forman, who directed the movie version, must have understood how crude the poetic-paranoid vision of the book would look on the screen after the 60s paranoia had lost its nightmarish buoyancy, and he and the scenarists--Lawrence Hauben, and then Bo Goldman--did an intelligent job of loosening Kesey's schematism. Set in 1963, the movie retains most of Kesey's ideas but doesn't diagram them the way the book does. Louise Fletcher gives a masterly performance as Nurse Ratched--she's the company woman incarnate. And Will Sampson, a towering full-blooded Creek, is very impressive as Chief Broom, the resurrected catatonic. Forman's tentative, literal-minded direction lacks the excitement of movie art and there's a callousness running through his work; he gets laughs by pretending that mental disturbance is the same as ineptitude. But the story and the acting make the film emotionally powerful. And Nicholson, looking punchy, tired, and baffled--and not on top of his character (as he often is)--lets you see into him, rather than controlling what he lets you see. With William Redfield, Brad Dourif, Scatman Crothers, Danny De Vito, Vincent Schiavelli, Sydney Lassick, Louisa Moritz, Marya Small, and Christopher Lloyd; cinematography by Haskell Wexler.

Not being privy to the selection committee for the original Quad Cinema festival, I can only guess at why they chose certain movies. On the one hand, Kael praised Cuckoo's Nest with her usual extravagance, but far as I can tell, it isn't featured in either of the anthologies of her work, including the one where she chose the reviews. As she often did with films based on novels, her take on the book is as insightful as what she has to say about the movie, and in comparing the two, she illuminates them both. She is able to take a more distanced approach than I do, though ... though I was only nine when the book came out, it, and Kesey in general, was a touchstone for me in the 60s ... I am one of those people Kael comments on as jumping right into the novel's world view.

Kesey refused to see the movie, which he felt ruined his book. And indeed, a few of the changes from book to movie are crucial. The film almost completely lacks the psychedelic feel of the novel. Kesey has Chief Broom narrate ... as Kael describes him, the Chief is catatonic, which the other inmates and staff take to mean he is deaf and dumb. He is a diagnosed schizophrenic, and his first-person narrative is largely where Kesey instills psychedelia in the novel. Kesey was pissed that in the movie, McMurphy is the central character, with the Chief pushed to the side for much of the film. Whatever else he is, McMurphy is not schizophrenic ... his perspective is far from psychedelic. So the film version has an entirely different feel from the book, and if you read and loved the book for it's paranoid vision of "The Combine", you'll notice something is missing. I think Kesey missed out, if he really didn't see the film, because Will Sampson as the Chief is magnificent. I used to think it was Sampson who saved Kesey's vision, but watching it now, I think I was wrong. Sampson/Chief is an important character, but his psychedelic narration is gone.

The film famously won all of the top Oscars (Picture, Director, Screenplay, Actor, Actress), which hadn't happened in more than 40 years. Jack Nicholson is at his most iconic ... it's safe to say that if you like Jack, you'll love him in this movie. Louise Fletcher's performance as Nurse Ratched is much more subtle than you might think. Her competition for Best Actress was a mixed bag: two-time winner Glenda Jackson, the odd choice of Ann-Margret in Tommy, Carol Kane wonderful in the little-seen Hester Street, and Isabelle Adjani, to my mind Fletcher's equal in The Story of Adele H. Fletcher's Oscar was deserved.

But then there's the problem with women in the story. Nurse Ratched represents the most oppressive aspects of the establishment ... Kesey (and the film) doesn't really contest this notion of Mom as Evil. The other women in the film are a couple of prostitutes, and a few of Ratched's underlings. I'm sure I didn't notice this when I was a kid, and I probably was still clueless in 1975. In 2021, it's impossible to miss.

Forman's treatment of the inmates is also odd in ways that aren't always positive. Writing about Forman's work in general, Kael wrote, "I experience a streak of low, buffoonish peasant callousness running through his work. He locks people into their physical properties." Back in 1975, I thought maybe Forman hired some actual inmates and exploited them, they seemed so exaggeratedly real ... like "crazy people" might look. (The movie was filmed at an actual state hospital.) Now, what I see are a lot of actors who were unknown to me at the time ... Christopher Lloyd, Danny De Vito, Michael "Hills Have Eyes" Berryman, Brad Dourif (in essentially his screen debut). There is some good acting here, especially from Dourif. But Forman does have Lloyd walking around bug-eyed, Berryman looks like Berryman ... so does Vincent Schiavelli, who has a part, as well. Danny De Vito isn't any shorter than usual, but it feels like a more defining feature of his character. Forman's use of these actors equates looking odd with having mental/emotional problems, as if we can spot the crazies because they look different from the rest of us. The acting overcomes most of this, but never completely.

So, is One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest still great? Does it, as they say, hold up? I'd say yes to both questions. There are problems that need to be confronted, but as Kael wrote, it's smashingly effective, and a lot of these people did their best work on this film.


original cast album: company (d.a. pennebaker, 1970)

This is the thirty-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 32 is called "Documentary Now! Week".

As film enthusiasts, we owe it to ourselves to watch anything that caters to the more niche aspects of our hobby. And Documentary Now! may be the most inside baseball show about movies since The Critic. Helen Mirren hosts this Masterpiece-Theater-in-its-own-right lampoon of some of the most influential documentaries ever made. Its a show made with so much respect and love for its source material while also providing delightful caricatures of said films. In order to get the most of the show, this week's a little bit of a challenge+, as you must check out both a documentary they have parodied and the episode that parodies the film you select.

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen film parodied in "Documentary Now!" AND the corresponding episode.

This is only my second year doing the Letterboxd Challenge, but I'd have to say this week's category was the most complicated I've seen yet. Not only did I watch a movie, I watched a related televsion show, from a series I admit I'd never heard of, Documentary Now! It's a mockumentary, created by some SNL folks, that takes a real documentary and parodies it. Helen Mirren appears as the Masterpiece-like host. Some of those real docs were hard to find, and I ended up with Original Cast Album: Company almost by default. It's a "direct cinema" film from D.A. Pennebaker, which in itself gives it some interest.

Pennebaker was invited into the session to record the cast album for Company, which had just begun its run. It was intended to be a pilot for a proposed series, but that idea fell apart, leaving just this one example. It's the usual fly-on-the-wall approach, and more interesting if you are familiar with Company (I was not). There were a few familiar names, even to me. Dean Jones, who starred in a zillion Disney movies like That Darn Cat! and The Love Bug, was the male lead and showed off a fine voice. The legendary Elaine Stritch was her inimitable self. Best of all was Beth Howland. At the time, she was known for appearing in stage musicals, and she was the original Amy in Company. But I recognized her for the nine years and 200+ episodes she appeared in the TV show Alice. I don't think I even knew she could sing. Amy, it turns out, gets to be the main singer for "Getting Married Today", which is described by Wikipedia: "With 68 words sung in a total of 11 seconds, "Getting Married Today" was notable for being the most difficult musical song with the fastest verse in history."

As for the Documentary Now! parody ... what's the word, meh. It was close to the original, too close ... the only humor came from making the connections to the original. There was nothing inherent in what they were doing that was funny. It's quite the academic exercise, though.


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.
 

as you like it

Watched a production of As You Like It tonight, put on by The Vagrancy. Our friend Arthur Keng was Touchstone ... it was fun seeing him, as always. As I said on their Facebook page, it was a wonderful performance. The production team created an inventive way to showcase the play and the players via Zoom and YouTube and whatever other trickery was in there. There were clever touches throughout, and the ending credits were perfect. In other Vagrancy Zoom productions, the "Zoominess" is obvious. In this play, they shot much of it in the forest, and the editing was good enough that I often forgot that two people in a scene weren't actually together during the shoot. You get a little feel for it in this preview:


three resurrected drunkards (nagisa oshima, 1968)

This is the thirty-first 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 31 is called "Director Recommendations: Bong Joon-ho Week".

As of this writing, the Academy Awards for 2021 are set for this week, but who's to say what the future holds? Regardless, let's indulge in some of the films that Best Screenplay/Director/Film winner Bong Joon-ho has decided are noteworthy.

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen film recommended by Bong Joon-ho.

This was a weird one, and I admit I wasn't prepared. The only film I'd seen by Nagisa Ôshima was the notorious In the Realm of the Senses, and that was outrageous enough that I should have been prepared for anything. Perhaps my usual insistence at knowing as little as possible beforehand hurt me here ... if I knew people saw 60s Godard in Ôshima, I might have cut him more slack. I found Three Resurrected Drunkards incomprehensible a lot of the time, but then, people often say that about those Godard films I love.

My confusion is twofold. First, Ôshima really does mess with the audience here. More than one person has said that they thought their disc player had malfunctioned halfway through the movie, because Ôshima suddenly repeats what has come before with very few changes ... the characters seem to have learned from their earlier escapades, something like Groundhog Day, but the similarities between the first half and the second are so striking it throws us off (purposely, I'm sure). Ôshima works overtime with the repetition as the film nears its conclusion, by which time I was at least more prepared. But I never did see the point of it (again, many people think the same of Godard).

The second problem was my lack of knowledge about Japanese culture in the late-60s. There is a lot going on in Three Resurrected Drunkards that went right over my head, although some post-viewing research at least clued me in a bit. It helps to know something about the relationship between Japan and outsiders, especially Korea. The film is also critical of the American presence in Vietnam, at a time when such criticism was vital. But I didn't necessarily pick up on it more than casually. The reuse of the iconic Eddie Adams photograph of the execution of a prisoner is interesting, if uncertain, in its multiple recreations by the film's heroes, and the appearance of the actual photograph in another confusing sequence at the end mostly muddled whatever meanings we were meant to discern. In fairness, though, a lot of this could be explained by my not knowing the cultural milieu of the film.

The most interesting piece of trivia (and it was not trivial to the people who saw the film when it came out) is that the three main characters are played by members of the folk-pop band The Folk Crusaders. The fractured, goofy beginning of the film suggests for many a Japanese version of a Richard Lester Beatles movie. It's unclear how this is connected, but the film's title is a take on a hit song by The Folk Crusaders, "Kaette Kita Yopparai", and that song pops up throughout the movie.

Three Resurrected Drunkards is a good movie for people who like off-the-wall entertainment. I wish I liked it. I didn't.